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South Carolina’s Civil Asset Forfeitures Unevenly Impact Black Men

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While black men comprise 13% of South Carolina’s population, they make up 65% of all people targeted in asset forfeitures, according to an investigation by the Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail. Law enforcement agencies in the state seized over $17 million in cash and property between 2014 and 2016, using a tool intended to combat crime by financially limiting criminal enterprises and allowing agencies to use the proceeds to combat illegal activities. However, one-fifth of people who had their assets seized in the state were not charged with a related crime and a similar proportion were not convicted. Over half the time that police seized cash, the amount was under $1,000, suggesting that they are not targeting major players in the drug trade. South Carolina’s seizures have left many people struggling to recover their money and property, a challenge since the burden of recovery is placed upon the individual and can result in cumbersome legal fees.

While 29 states have taken steps to reform their forfeiture processes, South Carolina has no oversight on what can be seized or how seized assets are spent. The U.S. Supreme Court recently unanimously ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “excessive fines” applies to state and local governments’ practice of civil asset forfeiture. Since all 50 states already have constitutional provisions prohibiting the imposition of excessive fines, this decision may bring more scrutiny. “Police and prosecutors will continue to engage in this kind of policing for profit unless and until legislatures no longer allow them to keep 100 percent of the proceeds to forfeitures,” said Wesley P. Hottot, who argued the Supreme Court case, adding: “judges at the end of the process have to evaluate if that’s really justice or not.”

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