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Midlands law enforcement defends SC property seizure laws

A new report says South Carolina residents have little protection under state law from having their property seized, but local law enforcement challenged that finding.

The report, “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture,” comes from the Virginia-based law firm the Institute for Justice. The libertarian organization “litigates to limit the size and scope of government power,” according to its website.

A media release highlighting data for South Carolina gave the state a report card grade of a D-, saying law enforcement can seize property on a “mere suspicion” of criminal activity. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said that description is not true.

“I give the writer an F,” Lott said.

For deputies to seize property, such as a vehicle, they have to have meticulous evidence that it has been used for illegal purposes, according to David Wilson, deputy chief for investigations at the Sheriff’s Department. If a driver is caught with marijuana, for example, that does not automatically give police a right to take the vehicle.

“You have to be transporting more than a pound of marijuana,” Wilson said. “If we catch your kid or you with a joint, that car can’t be seized.”

The report also criticized state law for giving law enforcement a strong financial incentive to take property, saying agencies keep 95 percent of the proceeds. That’s inaccurate, Wilson said. When property is seized by civil forfeiture, 5 percent of proceeds go to the state, 20 percent to the solicitor’s office, and 75 percent to the agency seizing it.

Money that goes to the solicitor’s office is used to prosecute drug cases, Wilson said. The Sheriff’s Department uses its proceeds to fund its narcotics unit with equipment and “buy money” – the about $200,000 a year used to buy drugs undercover and identify dealers.

Houses are even more difficult to seize, Wilson said.

“We very seldom seize a home,” he said. “We have a seizure in process now for a home on Bluff Road where we have made numerous drug buys.”

Not only have investigators made drug buys from that home, but they also have observed the homeowner participating in drug sales, Wilson added.

“You would have to seize a large amount of drugs or you would have to be able to tie that (house) into methamphetamine manufacture,” he said.

Additional restrictions apply to rental properties. Even if tenants commit drug crimes, the Sheriff’s Department can’t seize those properties because they don’t belong to the suspected criminals. In such cases, investigators will send a letter to a property’s landlord, who then must show proper efforts to evict the suspects.

What investigators often do seize is cash, found on suspected drug dealers during arrests or with marked police money mixed in after drug buys, Wilson said.

As for South Carolina’s grade on the institute’s report card, other states received similar criticism. The report gave 35 states a D+ or worse, and gave federal laws a D-.

Held up as a positive example was New Mexico, which recently abolished civil forfeiture and directed all forfeiture proceeds to the state’s general fund rather than law enforcement, according to the report.

But after working with civil forfeitures for 20 years, Wilson isn’t worried by the criticism.

“We have pretty good laws in the state of South Carolina,” he said.

He added that property seizure can be a useful tool and make a positive impact.

“I think it makes a statement,” Wilson said. “When the community sees the drug dealer in a fancy car with big wads of cash dealing drugs to their children, they want to see that drug dealer taken down.”

Glen Luke Flanagan: 803-771-8305, @glenlflanagan

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