South Carolina

Policing for Profit

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.

State Law Sources

Standard of proofGovernment 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 burdenOwner.
S.C. Code Ann. § 44-53-540; Pope v. Gordon, 633 S.E.2d 148, 151 (S.C. 2006).
Profit incentive95 percent (75 percent to law enforcement, 20 percent to prosecutors).
S.C. Code Ann. § 44-53-530(e).
Reporting requirementsAgencies 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).

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

State Forfeiture Data

YearEstimated Forfeiture Proceeds
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.

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.

(calendar years)
(fiscal years)
Average Per Year$4,014,820$1,294,643