A new investigative project from the Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail analyzing civil forfeitures in South Carolina reveals that police departments across the state have netted millions of dollars from state residents—the vast majority of them being black men.
Despite accounting for just 13 percent of South Carolina’s population, black men composed 65 percent of all civil forfeiture between 2014 and 2016, the TAKEN project found.
The report, published Monday, includes a statewide database and in-depth interviews that uncover the scale and scope of how South Carolina seizes assets from its residents. In many instances, these South Carolinians are low-income, black, or both, and don’t have the resources to reclaim that money—even if they were never charged for a crime or had the charges dismissed.
Civil forfeiture is the practice of the state seizing assets, whether cash or property, suspected to be tied to illegal activity such as drug trafficking. And in South Carolina, police departments profit directly from these seizures. The majority of the revenue from those forfeitures—about 95 percent, according to the Greenville News—goes to law enforcement, while the rest goes into South Carolina’s state coffers.
According to law enforcement, civil forfeitures are an essential tool in busting up drug trafficking operations.
“A drug enterprise is an onion, it’s a multitude of layers,” Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson told the Greenville news. “Some tools hurt the traffickers, some hurt the enterprise itself. I feel this hurts the enterprise.”
Of course, there’s personal incentives for officers to seize cash as well:
“Officers gather in places like Spartanburg County for contests with trophies to see who can make the largest or most seizures during highway blitzes. They earn hats, mementos and free dinners, and agencies that participate take home a cut of the forfeiture proceeds.”
But as the paper reports, one of the issues in South Carolina is that many of the people hit with civil forfeitures aren’t involved with drug trafficking, nor are they even drug users. In fact, according to their research, nearly one-fifth of South Carolinians who had their assets seized by police weren’t even charged with a crime.
From the Greenville News:
Out of more than 4,000 people hit with civil forfeiture over three years, 19 percent were never arrested. They may have left a police encounter without so much as a traffic ticket. But they also left without their cash.
Roughly the same number—nearly 800 people—were charged with a crime but not convicted.
To put it another way, well over a third of all cases in which the police seized assets either involve a person who wasn’t charged or was ultimately found innocent. Equally as troubling: The state of South Carolina doesn’t have to prove that civil forfeitures are tied to crimes, placing the burden of proof on defendants who may not have the money or resources to navigate the process of getting their money or property back.
The Greenville News report lays out the various components of civil forfeiture in South Carolina: how it’s more common in urban centers than rural areas, for example, and how highway policing contributes substantially to these forfeiture numbers. Most striking, however, is how the report maps out—at every step of the process—the ways in which South Carolina’s black residents suffer disproportionately.
Let’s take highway policing—where innocuous offenses like a broken tail light can lead to an officer searching your car for contraband. As with many other states, black people are far more likely to be pulled over than whites in South Carolina, and far more likely to be searched.
Here’s an example of one such civil forfeiture:
...A Wellford officer pulled over a black man on Interstate 85 for what he said was failure to maintain a lane. When he discovered cash in the car that day in 2012, the officer called in the top Homeland Security agent in Greenville to help seize it. They’d found what police said were “marijuana particles.”
The North Carolina driver, Lee Harris Jr., said it was tobacco. The officers took $7,008 from the glove box.”
...[Harris’ father] said he had left $7,000 in the car when his son went on a trip to Atlanta. He filed a lawsuit, and after a year-and-a-half, he settled. The government kept $2,008 even though Harris’ son was never charged with a crime.
Nor are black South Carolinians exempt from this trend when they’re off the state’s highways.
In one of several examples listed in the Greenville News, a black man who fought off a robber and was hospitalized as a result had $1,800 in cash seized from his house when a North Charleston police investigation turned up an ounce of marijuana in his home.
Once released from the hospital, Isiah Kinloch, a tattoo artist, was unable to get the money back and missed a rent payment—forcing him out of his apartment.
The charge against him—possession with intent to distribute—was ultimately dismissed.
Or take this example, which beggars belief:
“[The] city of Conway nearly succeeded in seizing [Ella Bromwell’s] house because they said she didn’t do enough to stop crime happening on the sidewalk and in her yard. Young men were using her lawn as a location to sell drugs at night, according to court records.”
Bromwell is a 72-year-old widow and has never been convicted of a crime, nor could police prove that she was “even aware of a single drug sale around her house,” writes the Greenville News. Still, Bromwell spent 10 years fighting Conway police over the right to keep her home.
For people whose money or property are seized, it’s unlikely that they’ll see those assets again—particularly if they’re black. The Greenville News’ data finds that white people are twice as likely to have those assets returned.
It’s likely that South Carolina isn’t the exception here. In one 2015 report released by Pennsylvania’s ACLU, black people in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, were found to make up half of all civil forfeitures, despite being just 9 percent of the county’s population. What’s significant in this latest Greenville News report is the extent of the data now available to reporters, criminal justice advocates, policy makers, and anyone else with an interest in policing abuses and inequities.
And abuse is by all means the right word for it. Because those millions of dollars peeled from the wallets, homes, and cars of black South Carolinians? Those all go back to the same departments that over-police black communities, giving them more funds with which to buy equipment, train officers, or fund undercover drug operations.