A pair of bills introduced in the state House of Representatives in the wake of The Greenville News’ TAKEN investigation received initial public hearings Thursday in front of a House Judiciary subcommittee.
One of the bills, which calls for creation of a statewide database to track money and property that is seized by law enforcement, received a 5-0 favorable recommendation from the subcommittee.
Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, the Constitutional Laws Subcommittee chairman, said transparency is needed when police seize cash or property.
“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” Newton said.
The second bill, a comprehensive reform bill that would abolish civil forfeiture and replace it with criminal forfeiture based on a felony conviction, was discussed, but the time-limited subcommittee adjourned and will resume discussion to hear from more stakeholders likely next week. In all, 102 of 123 House members have signed as co-sponsors of that legislation.
To pass the House and advance to the state Senate, legislation requires 63 votes.
Thursday’s hearing provided an opportunity for law enforcement officials to voice concerns they have with the bills, which would strip a stream of funds from their operations and send any forfeiture revenue to the state’s general fund, not to the law enforcement agency which made the seizure.
“We recognize that both with what’s been said today and what’s been printed in The Greenville News that there’s room for perfection; there’s room for refinement in this process,” said Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association.
Bruder said the association has no fundamental objection to the transparency bill. Law enforcement already gathers that information, and much of it is submitted to solicitors to prosecute cases, he said.
Law enforcement’s concerns are in the comprehensive reform bill’s details, Bruder said after the hearing. He said sheriffs have concern that the bill would require a felony conviction before cash or property could be forfeited. Sometimes, he said, deputies uncover sizeable quantities of drugs and make arrests, but not a large enough quantity to charge a felony. Under that circumstance, any drug proceeds couldn’t be seized if the reform bill passes as written, he said.
Cherokee County Sheriff Steve Mueller said his deputies sometimes come across drug mules who are carrying large quantities of cash along the interstate, but no drugs. Sometimes the people say they don’t know where the money came from and that it’s not theirs.
“We treat that as abandoned property,” he said.
The way the reform is written, law enforcement wouldn’t be able to seize that money.
Lee McGrath, an attorney with the Institute for Justice advocacy law firm that has pushed for civil forfeiture reform, helped state Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, shape the proposed reform bill. He said lawmakers are crafting an amendment to address those concerns.
He shared the proposed amendment with law enforcement officials Thursday and said it would allow police to call in federal help with any cases involving more than $50,000 regardless of criminal charges. Those forfeitures could still be processed under federal forfeiture laws, he said.
The amendment would also prohibit police from seizing money valued at less than $500 or vehicles valued less than $2,500, McGrath said.
In the TAKEN investigation, The Greenville News found that more than 2,000 times when officers seized money, they took less than $500. Under the current civil forfeiture system, that relatively small amount makes it impractical for a person to be able to hire an attorney to fight for their money if they believe it was wrongly seized, the investigation found.
That’s an issue Bruder and Mueller agreed needs to be changed. They each said cash shouldn’t be taken for simple possession tickets, and they said it doesn’t fit the criteria or intent of the law to seize small amounts of money, especially from drug users, not dealers, or those not charged at all, except in certain situations where someone is running money for a drug ring.
“We’re happy to refine it,” Bruder said. He didn’t want civil forfeiture done away with entirely though.
Rep. William Wheeler, D-Bishopville, said he found those smaller cases to be the most egregious but recognized law enforcement officials were working under the structure the legislature had created for civil forfeiture in the 1980s and 1990s.
“It’s a poor structure, and it’s incumbent on us to change it,” he said.
Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright said he has nothing to hide when it comes to seizures. That’s why he allowed reporters from The Greenville News to ride along with deputies during Operation Rolling Thunder last year.
“I want to be able to sit down and have a conversation with anyone about how we could do this better or be more fair because it’s about the people for me. It’s not about the money,” he said.
He said he trusted the people working to craft reform to come up with a law that still allows forfeiture but is fair.
Greenville Police Chief Ken Miller, in attendance as a past president of the South Carolina Police Chief’s Association, did not get a chance to comment Thursday before time expired. He declined to comment to a reporter until he’d had a chance to address the subcommittee at a future hearing.
Bruder said he disagreed with the characterization that law enforcement have an incentive to seize cash and property because the departments that make the seizure end up with the bulk of the proceeds.
“We’re not a business,” he said. “We don’t make a profit. Our primary business is public safety.
Forfeiture revenue provides money to buy resources departments can’t otherwise purchase, he said. Under the reform bill, forfeiture revenue would go directly to the state’s general fund, and Bruder said the General Assembly doesn’t fund local sheriff’s offices or police departments, so it would be up to local government to make up the difference.
Clemmons said the testimony in the hearing showed that the forfeiture system the legislature created has failed.
“It painted the picture of why South Carolina’s experiment since the 1990s with civil asset forfeiture is an experiment that’s in dire need of reform,” Clemmons said.
The transparency bill, H 3307, now proceeds to the full House Judiciary Committee.
“As The Greenville News fully knows, it is a very difficult, cumbersome, time-consuming process to go out on your own to gather all of the civil asset forfeiture information around the state,” Clemmons said. “This bill will empower every system, with the touch of a button, they will be able to access that data for themselves.”
There would be a cost associated with building and maintaining a statewide database, said Kathryn Richardson, spokeswoman for the State Law Enforcement Division. She said it could take several years to get it up and running and would require outside contractors and additional employee time.
Newton responded that this was critical information for the public to know and that it should be addressed soon.
“Having a database that shows what assets of our citizens were seized by what law enforcement agency and under what circumstances I think is pretty significant to make sure, quite frankly, that people are doing the right thing,” he said.
Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said subcommittee members and bill co-sponsors would work with the sheriff’s association and SLED to figure out the best method to make a database of seizures easily accessible to the public.