License to Steal

South Carolina’s law enforcement has been addicted to forfeiture money for some time, and cooperation with federal agencies has only made it easier for local police to steal and keep money that they seize from motorists. Law enforcement will argue that forfeitures are an essential tool in the war on drugs. The truth is that local police departments have long been dependent on the money they take from motorists and they will not give it up easily.

Police seize money from drug dealers, but they also seize money from citizens who have nothing to do with the drug trade. More importantly, police are motivated to stop, harass, and search as many citizens as possible to maximize their odds of finding free cash. The burden, under federal or South Carolina state law, is on the motorist to prove that their money comes from a legitimate source, and law enforcement can seize and keep a person’s money without proving that any crime occurred.

Highway Robbery Under State or Federal Law

Under South Carolina’s forfeiture laws, police can seize money or a vehicle if it is proceeds from or intended to be used in drug transactions. They must file a forfeiture action for an initial determination that there was probable cause that the property was drug-related. However, in many cases, police will not file the forfeiture action at all or they will pressure the motorist to sign a consent form on the side of the road. The amount of funds seized are often too small to justify an attorney’s fees to recover the stolen funds, and police take full advantage of this knowledge.

The federal forfeiture laws are even more lax than South Carolina state laws. Local police departments have been coordinating operations with federal agencies for years that target motorists on South Carolina’s interstates. Like fishing on the highway, they will make stop after stop along the same stretch of interstate for infractions such as speeding, following too close, or other minor traffic violations. Once they have stopped the vehicle, they will tell the motorist that they have been having trouble with guns and drugs on the interstate and ask for consent to search. If consent is denied, the officers will attempt to establish probable cause using drug dogs or by noting possible indicators of drug activity that are copied and pasted from appellate opinions and taught to them in training seminars.

When they find money and take it, the feds split the proceeds with local agencies and everyone gets richer. In 2015, South Carolina law enforcement agencies profited $4.3 million from federal forfeitures alone.

What’s Wrong With Forfeitures?

It’s just a drug dealer’s money, right? Except it’s not. I’ve seen or heard of many cases where police will take a person’s money that was verifiably not related to drug dealing. It could be money from their job, from a student loan, or any number of legitimate sources. The officer may have seized the funds along with a roach or miniscule amount of marijuana. Small amounts seized from motorists add up to a significant cash cow for local police agencies, and the police know that attorneys will not take the motorist’s case when the amount in controversy is only a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars. What else could go wrong?

Law enforcement is addicted to forfeiture money and will not reform their practices without an intervention by the legislature. State legislatures and Congress need to step up and change the forfeiture laws to require, at a minimum, a criminal conviction before funds or property is seized. Personally, I don’t have a problem with government seizing and retaining funds from proven drug traffickers. But the forfeiture laws as they are now do not protect innocent citizens from legalized theft by the police.

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