GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Over three years, law enforcement agencies seized $17 million from people in South Carolina they thought got the money through illegal means, according to an investigation by two newspapers.
About 65 percent of the people targeted for civil asset forfeiture in the state from 2014 to 2016 were black males in a state where African-American men make up just 13 percent of the population, according to “Taken,” a project by The Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail.
Nearly 20 percent of the more than 4,000 people who had money or items seized over three years were never charged with a crime and another one in five were found not guilty or had charges dismissed. In more than half the cases, police seized less than $1,000, the newspapers reported.
The newspapers gathered court records on civil forfeiture from all 46 counties in South Carolina for their series and called every law enforcement agency in the state to see what they collected and how they spent seized assets.
Law enforcement says taking the money is vital to ending criminal enterprises. They are allowed to use the money in their operations. Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright uses a pickup truck seized from someone charged with a drug crime as his work vehicle.
Critics say they can target legitimate businesses, making it expensive and sometimes impossible to get the money back.
Isiah Kinloch called 911 after someone broke into his North Charleston apartment in 2015 and broke a bottle over his head. Police found an ounce (28 grams) of marijuana in his apartment and took $1,800 in cash from the tattoo artist.
Kinloch was charged with possession with intent to distribute, but the charge was dropped. Kinloch never got his money back and was evicted after he couldn’t pay his rent.
“The robber didn’t get anything, but the police got everything,” Kinloch told the newspapers.
In Conway, city officials tried to take 72-year-old widow Ella Bromell’s home starting in 2007 because people she did not know were selling drugs in her yard and the sidewalk by her home at night. The city said she didn’t do enough to stop the crimes.
Bromell fought the city for a decade and eventually two judges ruled in her favor. But Bromell told the newspapers she worries the city may try again.
There is little oversight on how law enforcement agencies spend the money they seize. Wright sold a number of items the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office has taken at auction. Other agencies pay for guns, training, meals or food for police dogs.
There are a couple of likely reasons blacks are targeted at greater rates. First, they are more likely to run businesses like barber shops or yard care that operate on cash payments. And second, they are more likely to be pulled over in traffic stops, said Ngozi Ndulue, recently a national NAACP senior director, now working at the Death Penalty Information Center.
Greenville Police Chief Ken Miller said his officers go to where they are called or find problems, and that is more often in African-American neighborhoods.
“We police where people are telling us there are problems. We’re not an agency – and I don’t know a police agency – that tries to balance racially its interdiction of drugs off the street,” Miller said.
Twenty-nine states have taken steps to reform their forfeiture process with 15 of them requiring a criminal conviction before seizing property, according to the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit libertarian law firm.
Bills to reform South Carolina’s seizure rules have been recently filed, but have not made it out of committees.
House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said he hopes the findings, especially how often black men are targeted, will boost chances for reform.
“The fact that they are being stopped is no surprise, but now, the unmitigated fact that they are having their assets seized and taken by the government is appalling,” the defense attorney from Columbia told the newspapers