South Carolina Judge Says State's Asset Forfeiture Programs Are Unconstitutional
from the and-SC's-programs-are-similar-to-others-all-over-the-nation dept
Asset forfeiture certainly seems unconstitutional. But we don’t have a lot of case law actually saying that. Something that began in the United States as a way to punish wrongdoers located elsewhere in the world, but whose property (usually a ship and its contents) had sailed into US jurisdiction, is now used by American law enforcement to take cash, vehicles, and whatever else they can haul away from people they think smell like weed.
The US government followed British law for its take on asset forfeiture. And yet, it was hardly ever used until the 20th century. Things ratcheted up during Prohibition, then faded away again. The New Prohibition — the never-ending Drug War — brought it back. And it’s bigger than ever, despite the public’s growing awareness that most of what’s called “civil asset forfeiture” is just legalized theft.
The Supreme Court of the United States said one state’s forfeiture program was unconstitutional. Citing the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines, the Court said a program that allows cops to take a $42,000 vehicle from a person charged with a crime that only generates a $10,000 maximum fine is unconstitutional. This was criminal asset forfeiture — there was a conviction involved — but the ruling seemed to signal seizures where no criminal charges are brought would make any amount excessive.
The other recent ruling against forfeiture came from a federal judge in New Mexico. The Albuquerque Police Department’s seizure of vehicles from drivers arrested for driving under the influence was called unconstitutional. It was also unlawful. A law passed by the state legislature banned this practice, but the PD didn’t actually stop until after this ruling.
So, asset forfeiture continues pretty much unabated. Fortunately, there’s been another ruling handed down that says pretty much everything about civil asset forfeiture is unconstitutional… in multiple ways. The downside is that, for now, it only affects part of one state.
A South Carolina circuit court judge in Horry County has ruled the state’s civil asset forfeiture law unconstitutional, in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth, Fifth and 14th amendments.
While the decision by 15th Circuit Court Judge Steven H. John doesn’t set precedent beyond his courtroom, it could set the table for a state appellate court to determine whether South Carolina needs to enact reforms to its law.
South Carolina’s asset forfeiture programs are definitely in need of reform. Troopers camp on outbound highways to shake down drivers for cash. Cops respond to reports of crime by looking through victims‘ houses for any contraband that might excuse walking off with their cash. In one case, cops searched the house of a murder victim and helped themselves to $1,700 they found while looking for evidence of the crime they could hardly be bothered to investigate. Then they moved forward with the forfeiture, sending the notice of the PD’s claim to the murder victim.
The decision [PDF] doesn’t pull any punches. Judge John can’t find anything he likes about the state’s forfeiture programs. First up, it’s the Eighth Amendment, which — as incorporated by South Carolina’s Constitution — forbids excessive fines. Here, the judge draws the line the Supreme Court of the United States didn’t: forfeitures without convictions makes any seizure excessive. [emphasis in the original]
This Court finds that South Carolina’s forfeiture statutes violate both the federal and South Carolina constitutional protections against excessive fines by permitting the government to seize unlimited amounts of cash and other property without regard to the proportionality of the crime that may have been committed. Indeed, they allow the government to seize unlimited amounts of cash and other property when no crime has been committed, without a criminal conviction and without proof of a crime having been committed beyond a determination of probable cause.
[S]outh Carolina’s forfeiture statutes would allow law enforcement to seize millions in assets from an individual when the maximum fine authorized by law is minimal or when no crime has been committed at all. This unfettered authorization to seize unlimited amounts of property from citizens without regard to the proportionality of the offense committed — indeed, without evidence proving that the individual committed an offense — compels this Court to find that the statutory scheme is unconstitutional and must be invalidated…
The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments are violated by the burden shifting that occurs during forfeiture proceedings. This forces citizens to prove the seized property was acquired through legal means while only asking the government to show courts there’s a small possibility it’s correct in its assumptions of illegal origin. The entire process is backwards. Any system that allows the government to take property from individuals without even charging them with a crime wreaks havoc on the due process supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution.
But that’s not the only violation of these rights. The judge points out that the perverted incentives forfeiture programs create do further damage to the Constitution.
Forfeiture programs in South Carolina have an unconstitutional incentive to prosecute forfeiture cases because, in practice, these programs set their own budget and can spend forfeiture funds in any amount and on any items that they choose, including recurring expenses, and without any meaningful oversight. “Thus, there is a ‘realistic possibility’ that forfeiture officials’ judgment ‘will be distorted by the prospect of institutional gain’ — the more revenues they raise, the more revenues they can spend.”
Because the revenues generated by the forfeiture programs are used to pay the expenses of the forfeiture programs, to justify the salaries of forfeiture employees, and to maintain a level of discretionary spending that would not otherwise be available to the agencies involved, enforcement personnel have an institutional financial incentive to vigorously pursue forfeitures regardless of the merits of the action.
On top of that, there’s the quasi-judicial process, which is designed to efficiently separate people from property cops have seized from them. That’s another string of Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment violations.
Under S.C. Code the seizing agency is required to file a forfeiture action within a reasonable time of the seizure. The statute does not define a reasonable time. The law permits a seizure without a warrant if the seizure is made as incident to arrest or if probable cause exists to believe that the property was used in violation of the drug laws… The statute does not have a provision for any type of pre-seizure or post-seizure hearing to determine if probable cause exists… [T]he law does not provide for any judicial review or judicial authorization prior to or subsequent to the seizure.
In practice, many seizures under South Carolina’s forfeiture laws are not followed up by the filing of a forfeiture action, leaving many defendants with the choice of retaining an attorney to file a civil action against the state or simply allowing law enforcement to keep their money or property.
Because the statutes do not require a pre-seizure or post-seizure hearing, S.C. Code 44-53-520 and S.C. Code 44-53-530 do not comply with the due process clause of Article 1, Section 3 of the South Carolina Constitution or the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.
Judge John pitches a shutout. Asset forfeiture in almost any form is unconstitutional. Civil asset forfeiture in any form is unquestionably unconstitutional. Where the government chooses to take this from here will be interesting. Does it take the loss and limit the damage to this judge’s courtroom, meaning it will have to hope any forfeiture proceedings it engages in are routed around this new damage? Or does it challenge the ruling and risk having this spread across the state? If the agencies affected are greedy enough, they might just act against their own interest. And that could be good news for South Carolinians.