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Theft of Seized Funds Demonstrates Deep Need for Civil Forfeiture Reform in South Carolina

The Institute for Justice is asking the state Supreme Court to end “policing for profit” and restore South Carolinians’ expectation that they are innocent until proven guilty

ARLINGTON, Va.—The Institute for Justice (IJ), which will soon argue before the South Carolina Supreme Court that it should end the controversial practice of civil forfeiture, calls attention to the sentencing of Blair Shaffer, the former police chief of Manning, South Carolina. Yesterday, a federal court sentenced Shaffer to a year and a day in prison for his theft of nearly $80,000 in cash seized by his office during a traffic stop. Shaffer’s sentencing is part of a series of high-profile prosecutions that demonstrate the need to end “policing for profit” in the Palmetto State.

Shaffer’s theft was discovered after a state court ordered that some of the seized money be returned to the property owners, and the money was sent to their attorneys in the form of checks drawn from Shaffer’s personal bank account. The U.S. Department of Justice brought federal charges after an FBI investigation. That a South Carolina officer had the opportunity to commit such a crime shows how the profit motive inherent in civil forfeiture distorts law enforcement priorities.

“South Carolinians’ property rights deserve to be treated with respect, but it is not surprising to see that another former law enforcement official has been convicted for misusing seized funds since the legal practice of civil forfeiture lets law enforcement treat citizens like ATMs,” said Robert Frommer, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “Moving seized funds into a personal bank account is a crime. Yet it is legal for officers to seize cash without charging the owner with a crime—let alone securing a conviction—and then use that cash as a slush fund for their agency. The South Carolina Supreme Court should end civil forfeiture’s profit incentive, which too often turn cops into robbers.”

Under South Carolina’s forfeiture system, prevailing police and prosecutors get to sell the owner’s property and keep at least 95% of the proceeds for their agencies. As a report by the Institute for Justice demonstrates, the financial incentive posed by civil forfeiture lures officials away from the impartial pursuit of justice and toward policing for profit.

South Carolina’s forfeiture laws also lack accountability. The law requires that forfeiture proceeds be put into accounts dedicated exclusively to seizing and forfeiting agencies. Those agencies typically do not have to ask anyone for permission before they spend the money in those accounts. And since agencies do not need to report how much they have spent in forfeiture proceeds, or on what, the true scale of South Carolina’s “policing for profit” problem is impossible to measure.

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