It’s remarkable that it has taken this long for a court to find it unconstitutional:
Civil asset forfeiture has been in the crosshairs across the country for years now because it allows police and prosecutors to declare that any money or property owned by a suspect is “connected” to a crime, seize it, and then ultimately keep it for themselves. And because this is a civil process, police and prosecutors can do this without having to convict anybody. It’s the assets that are considered the defendants (in this case, the respondent is actually the $20,771 that Horry County wants to seize from a man charged with trafficking cocaine), prosecutors typically have a lower threshold to make their case than “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and people who are pulled into these forfeiture cases don’t have access to public defenders and have to fund their own lawyers.
The end result: Police trying to keep whatever they can grab off anybody they arrest, claiming it’s all proceeds or property connected to criminal activities, and using it to line their own pockets. This incentivizes police to look for people who have assets that can be seized. Local newspapers in South Carolina teamed up to investigate the extent of abuses and discovered police agencies across the state had seized more than $17 million in assets across three years. In one-fifth of the cases, nobody was charged or even arrested for a crime.
Judge John notes all of these problems in a decisive ruling that smacks down the practice of civil asset forfeiture. In his 15-page opinion, he writes that South Carolina’s forfeiture practice violate both the U.S. Constitution and the state’s because the statutes “(1) place the burden on the property owner to prove their innocence, (2) unconstitutionally institutionally incentivizes forfeiture officials to prosecute forfeiture actions, and (3) do not mandate judicial review or judicial authorization prior to or subsequent to the seizure.” He also notes that the statutes violate citizens’ Eighth Amendment protections against excessive fines.
It’s a good start. Now let’s get a conclusive Supreme Court decision setting precedent on the topic. And a federal law banning it.