In a major blow against government accountability, the South Carolina Supreme Court last week upheld the state’s civil forfeiture laws, which let police permanently confiscate cash, cars, and even homes, without ever filing criminal charges. By overturning a lower court ruling that declared civil forfeiture unconstitutional, the decision jeopardizes property rights for thousands of people across the Palmetto State.
A sweeping investigation by the Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail identified at least 1,510 cases—nearly 40% of all forfeiture cases in the state—where the owner was never convicted of a crime. And under state law, if an owner doesn’t formally file a claim for their seized property, law enforcement agencies win a “default judgment” and keep what was taken. In South Carolina, over 70% of forfeiture cases were won by default.
Worse, state law provides a powerfully perverse incentive to police for profit. Once a property has been forfeited, the seizing agency keeps the first $1,000 and then 75% of the remainder. Prosecutors receive 20%, while a mere 5% is sent to the general fund. Since 2009, law enforcement has generated nearly $97 million in state forfeiture revenue.