COLUMBIA, S.C. (WBTW) – South Carolina lawmakers are considering changes to the state’s civil forfeiture statute.
Civil asset forfeiture is used by law enforcement to seize assets like cash, cars, houses, or any property from suspects they believe helped facilitate the commission of a crime..
“When that money is seized, there’s a criteria we just can’t randomly seize assets from individuals that are not involved in criminal activity,” said Lt. Tony Allen with Myrtle Beach Police.
Agencies get to keep a percentage of what is seized. That money is supposed to be used as a tool to combat drugs.
In 2016, Myrtle Beach police made 55 seizures totaling $93,617. Out of that, the department was awarded $74,448.
In 2017, MBPD made 47 seizures worth $77,617 and was awarded $71,141.
In 2018, 52 seizures were made. Nine of those cases are still going through the court system. Police seized $148,010 that year and as of now was awarded $106,526.
Myrtle Beach police said that money is not used to supplement their budget.
“We don’t know if any seizures will even occur, so when a budget is submitted, assets, seizures are not factored into submitted budgets,” said Lt. Allen.
MBPD broke down exactly where that money went.
They spent $27,823 on a new K-9 vehicle.
The department purchased a new K-9 in 2017 for $6,030, and in 2018 spent $14,618 on a new K-9 and training.
From 2016- 2018, the department spent $35,792 on training for K-9s and narcotics officers. Police used $229,676 on equipment for officers.
“Moving forward as that K9 continues to work, his years of service, we do not budget drug money that had been seized to continue that program, said Lt. Allen.
Myrtle Beach police said they submit a request through the city government on how they’d like to spend forfeiture funds. It is then reviewed by the city attorney to make sure they are spending within the guidelines.
“That money that went to support the criminal activity in those communities is turned around and put back into those communities to help improve the quality of life to help ensure a more safe and a more friendly community,” said Lt. Allen.
News13 obtained documents showing how much money Horry County police received from asset seizures.
In the last three years, nearly $808,880 dollars were seized and the department was awarded $505,248 of that.
There were 238 seizure cases involving cash. Sixty-three of those cases are still going through the court system.
Horry County police used $220,000 of seizure money to have street crimes and narcotics units conduct drug buys.
The department used $283,062 dollars for equipment, training, and uniforms.
Meanwhile, in Columbia, sweeping changes to the forfeiture law stalled last year and could come up this session.
“I think there’s some changes that need to be made. Particularly, in the amount of the forfeiture, like a minimum amount. There’s a lot of times you catch people with drugs and they have $75 in their pocket. You know, they are no large scale drug dealer and they take the $75,” said Senator Greg Hembree.
Horry County police gave News13 additional information allowing further breakdown.
In 14 of their forfeiture cases, police seized less than $500.
Other proposed changes to the law would eliminate the use of civil forfeiture and make it a criminal forfeiture.
It would also create a central database for access to every time law enforcement agencies seized property
“I support this statute that, that calls upon the prosecution commission, the state prosecution commission to gather data from all the law enforcement agencies on all of their forfeitures,” said Senator Hembree.
Judge Steven H. John ruled civil forfeiture unconstitutional in Horry and Georgetown Counties for one specific case. Now, Solicitor Jimmy Richardson is working to appeal that decision, but because of that ruling, other judges aren’t trying forfeiture cases essentially putting it on hold in the court system.