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South Carolina earns a D- for its civil forfeiture laws:

  • Low bar to forfeit and no conviction required
  • Poor protections for innocent third-party property owners
  • 95% of forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement

State Forfeiture Laws

South Carolina’s civil forfeiture laws offer very little protection for property owners, earning a D- grade. As in all states, law enforcement need only have probable cause to seize property. But to get seized property back in South Carolina, an owner must show that it is not forfeitable by a preponderance of the evidence. Innocent owners also bear the burden of proving that they did not consent to the illegal use of their property. Making matters worse, South Carolina law enforcement agencies have a powerful incentive to seize property: They retain 95 percent of forfeiture proceeds, with 75 percent going to police agencies and 20 percent to prosecutors. The remaining 5 percent is deposited into the state’s general fund.

Not only do South Carolina’s laws fail to protect property owners, but they also fail to provide much transparency: Law enforcement agencies are not required to track or report their forfeitures. Instead, they only have to maintain an inventory of seized property and share that information with the appropriate prosecution agency. The Institute for Justice was able to obtain records of the 5 percent of forfeiture proceeds deposited into the state general fund by filing a South Carolina Freedom of Information Act request with the state treasurer. IJ used these records to estimate that law enforcement agencies obtained $22.7 million in forfeiture proceeds between 2009 and 2014, averaging $3.8 million per fiscal year.

Show State Law Sources
Standard of proof

Government must show probable cause for seizure and the owner must show that the property is not forfeitable by a preponderance of the evidence.

S.C. Code Ann. §§ 44-53-520(b) to -586(b); Pope v. Gordon, 633 S.E.2d 148, 151 (S.C. 2006).

Innocent owner burden


S.C. Code Ann. § 44-53-540; Pope v. Gordon, 633 S.E.2d 148, 151 (S.C. 2006).

Profit incentive

95 percent (75 percent to law enforcement, 20 percent to prosecutors).

S.C. Code Ann. § 44-53-530(e).

Reporting requirements

Agencies are required to maintain an inventory of seized property and submit those inventories to the appropriate prosecution agency.

S.C. Code Ann. § 44-53-520(j).

State Forfeiture Data

Year Estimated Forfeiture Proceeds
2009 $3,355,238
2010 $5,350,240
2011 $4,838,507
2012 $2,763,891
2013 $2,633,693
2014 $3,735,480
Total $22,677,048
Average per year $3,779,508

Source: Estimated forfeiture proceeds based on data obtained from a South Carolina Freedom of Information Act request made to the Office of the State Treasurer. By law, 5 percent of all forfeiture proceeds must be deposited into the state general fund. The Institute for Justice obtained records of these deposits and multiplied fiscal-year totals by 20 in order to estimate the total value of forfeitures in South Carolina. These totals do not include the proceeds of “chop shop” (stolen vehicles or auto parts) forfeitures, which are sent directly to the relevant county general fund.

South Carolina ranks 29th for federal forfeiture, with over $56 million in Department of Justice equitable sharing proceeds from 2000 to 2013.

Federal Equitable Sharing

South Carolina law enforcement’s participation in the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program earns the Palmetto State 29th place in the national rankings. Between 2000 and 2013, South Carolina agencies received over $56 million in DOJ equitable sharing proceeds, averaging more than $4 million each calendar year. Almost 80 percent of assets seized and 62 percent of proceeds received came from joint task forces and investigations, equitable sharing practices largely unaffected by the DOJ’s new policy intended to rein in equitable sharing. Further, South Carolina agencies received more than $18 million in equitable sharing proceeds from the Treasury Department, averaging $1.3 million each fiscal year between 2000 and 2013.

View Local Law Enforcement Data
(calendar years)
(fiscal years)
2000 $779,698 $182,000
2001 $1,553,493 $156,000
2002 $3,773,898 $179,000
2003 $3,873,238 $909,000
2004 $4,049,345 $1,286,000
2005 $3,490,372 $1,012,000
2006 $3,955,589 $186,000
2007 $3,454,685 $491,000
2008 $4,041,224 $828,000
2009 $6,506,996 $4,410,000
2010 $4,786,969 $2,014,000
2011 $6,800,641 $397,000
2012 $2,928,667 $3,618,000
2013 $6,212,660 $2,457,000
Total $56,207,475 $18,125,000
Average Per Year $4,014,820 $1,294,643

DOJ Equitable Sharing,
Adoptive vs. Joint, 2000-2013

Joint Task Forces and Investigations

DOJ Equitable Sharing Proceeds, 2000-2013

Sources: Institute for Justice analysis of DOJ forfeiture data obtained by FOIA; Treasury Forfeiture Fund Accountability Reports. Data include civil and criminal forfeitures. Because DOJ figures represent calendar years and Treasury figures cover fiscal years, they cannot be added.

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