News 13 Special Report: The future of forfeiture laws in the state

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HORRY COUNTY, SC (WBTW)- A recent ruling in Horry and Georgetown Counties by Judge Steven H. John found that South Carolina’s forfeiture law violates federal and state constitutional protections.

The Horry County case that prompted the ruling was the State vs Travis Lee Green. Green is serving a 15 year sentence for dealing drugs. Police seized more than 20,000 dollars in cash from Green after undercover officers bought cocaine from him three times. Police then executed a search warrant. John ruled it was unconstitutional to seize Green’s money using civil asset forfeiture statutes.

Representative Russell Fry agrees that the controversial practice is unconstitutional.

“Forfeiture of assests doesn’t have to accompany a charge, there’s no due process, there’s no judicial review of whether that’s excessive or not, there’s no real portection for the individuals,” said Rep. Russell Fry of Surfside.

A newspaper investigation revealed South Carolina law enforcement agencies seized more than 17 million dollars in just three years. Twenty percent of those who had items seized were never charged with a crime, and another five percent were found not guilty. Local agencies retain 70 percent of the money seized to pay for equipment and training to fight the war on drugs.

“We’re seeing abuse all over this state where assets are taken and people are never charged, and they have to go through a labrynth of bureaucracy and they might get it back, they might not and that’s the problem,” said Rep. Fry.

Solicitor Jimmy Richardson is asking Judge John to recondsider, as he and others were already working to re-write the law.

“If a person is riding around with a bunch of coke, a bunch of money, a bunch of scales, and a bunch of guns, it’s going to be seized. What do we do once it’s seized is the question at this point,” said 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson.

Right now, as a civil forfeiture, the burden of proof is like a probable cause, but the proposed statute will make it a criminal forfeiture so prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt they should be seizing the assets.

One major issue for lawmakers the proposed statute tackles, is eliminating roadside waivers, where people sign consent forms to hand over their assets without an arrest and with little to no oversight.

“That was the thing they were most concered with, and honestly I’m concerned about that,” said Richardson.

According to the Greenville News investigation, a third of the cash forfeitures in the state, involved 500 dollars or less in cash which inlcuded 645 people alone in Florence County

The proposed statute prevents that, and also creates a process for how the money seized is allocated. Richardson believes the 40 page statute addresses the big concerns.

“Seizures without an arrest, seizures even with an arrest of simple possession, those are prohibited by our statute,” said Richardson.

Now, it’s up to South Carolina lawmakers in 2020.

As for the ruling, Judge John will take up the issue again in early December.

To read the court order from Judge John click here: https://www.wbtw.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2019/11/Court-Order-Forfeiture.pdf

To read the proposed statute click here: https://www.wbtw.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2019/11/Full-Forfeiture-Bill.pdf

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