South Carolina judge says forfeiture law unconstitutional

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CONWAY, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina judge has declared the state’s forfeiture law that allows money or other items to be taken without a conviction violates the state and federal constitutions.

News outlets report the decision by Horry County Judge Steven H. John could set the table for a state appellate court to determine whether South Carolina needs to rewrite its civil asset forfeiture law.

The state allows police to seize cash, cars and other possessions from people suspected of drug dealing, regardless of whether they’ve been convicted of a crime or charged with one.

Advocates say the forfeitures take some of the profit out of drug crime and the proceeds finance law enforcement efforts, but critics say abuses also have been reported.

An investigation by The Greenville News found law enforcement seized $17 million across South Carolina from 2014 to 2016. Nearly 20% of more than 4,000 people who had money or items seized were never charged with a crime.

John’s decision found that South Carolina’s forfeiture law violates federal and state constitutional protections against excessive fines by allowing the government to seize unlimited amounts of cash and property, disproportionate to the alleged crime.

The Horry County case involved more than $20,000 in cash seized from Travis Lee Green of Myrtle Beach, who is serving a 15-year sentence for dealing drugs. John ruled it was unconstitutional to seize Green’s money using civil asset forfeiture statutes.

The 15th Circuit solicitor, Jimmy Richardson II, said he’s asked the judge to reconsider his decision, a step Richardson said is required before filing an appeal.

Green’s money was seized after undercover drug enforcement agents bought cocaine from him three times, then executed a warrant to search Green’s apartment, where they said they found drugs and cash.

After a legislative push to overhaul South Carolina’s forfeiture laws stalled, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers has been meeting as a study committee to draft proposals to be considered in next year’s legislative session.

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