Civil Forfeiture: South Carolina Not *Quite* Done Stealing From Black People
The Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail teamed up to break a story this week about organized crime in South Carolina. Unfortunately, the "gangsters" are members of law enforcement. This shocking expose, an impressive feat of local reporting, starts off horribly and only gets worse from there.
When a man barged into Isiah Kinloch's apartment and broke a bottle over his head, the North Charleston resident called 911. After cops arrived on that day in 2015, they searched the injured man's home and found an ounce of marijuana.
So they took $1,800 in cash from his apartment and kept it.
There are multiple accounts of the police treating citizens, primarily African Americans, like living ATMs. Spartanburg County deputies stopped an Atlanta businessman for speeding on Interstate 85. He wasn't charged, but the deputies found $29,000 in his car and took it with them. This was literal highway robbery.
South Carolina police also picked prey that was vulnerable and least likely to have the resources to fight back. In Myrtle Beach, drug enforcement agents confiscated almost $5,000 from a young woman whose "crime" was giving a ride to a friend who was a suspect in a drug case. She herself wasn't involved and wasn't charged, but she spent a year trying to get her money returned. She worked as a waitress and didn't have a checking account. Unfortunately, despite the barriers banks place to the poor opening accounts in the first place, carrying large amounts of cash is too often viewed as evidence of wrongdoing.
Journalists at the Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail examined every other court case involving civil asset forfeiture in South Carolina from 2014-2016. The investigation is called TAKEN and boasts a comprehensive database on the chilling subject of officers seizing property from citizens who haven't even been charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. This more closely resembles "Gestapo tactics" than anything Roger Stone experienced.
South Carolina law enforcement has pulled in $17 million over three years off these corrupt practices. The bulk of the money confiscated ends up their own pockets. The intent is to fight crime with the funds seized from criminal activity. In practice, it's become a perverse game show with trophies and cash prizes. No, really.
Officers gather in places like Spartanburg County for contests with trophies to see who can make the largest or most seizures during highway blitzes. They earn hats, mementos and free dinners, and agencies that participate take home a cut of the forfeiture proceeds.
Law enforcement claims these Boss Hogg tactics help them break up dangerous criminal organizations. It keeps law-abiding citizens safe! Yet it also keeps law-abiding citizens poor. According to TAKEN, more than 4,000 people were hit with civil forfeiture over the past three years and 19 percent were never arrested or even ticketed. This collateral damage is easily accepted in South Carolina because the police's winning slot machines are most often black men. We're 13 percent of the state's population but are 65 percent of all citizens targeted.
If you're thinking this can't possibly be legal, you didn't grow up black in South Carolina. We're almost grateful the cops aren't leaving us for dead after taking our money and the cannolis. The shadow of Jim Crow lowers expectations. Police can get away with anything so long as the majority of Americans believe only "bad people" who don't wear MAGA hats are impacted.
Greenville attorney Jake Erwin said the overarching idea is that the money being seized is earnings from past drug sales, so it's fair game. "In theory, that makes a little bit of sense," he said. "The problem is that they don't really have to prove that."
South Carolina requires no proof when robbing people in broad-ass daylight. After screwing you over, the police don't even leave you with cab fare let alone the means to mount a legal challenge, but even if you can manage one, prosecutors only have to show a "preponderance of evidence." It's not technically a criminal case, so an attorney isn't provided to you. The burden of proving your seized property was legally yours is also all on you. This all seems less constitutional than a woman's right to bodily autonomy but it's the latter that conservatives are actively challenging right now. Where's the "March for a Brother's Money"?
pirates police don't just take cash. They've reportedly confiscated and sold at auction jewelry, electronics, and firearms. South Carolina used to confiscate and sell us at auction, so this is a slight improvement. A whopping 95 percent of all forfeited revenue goes back to the police. The state's general fund receives the rest. The agent for a CW star gets a bigger cut.
Kinloch, who thought he could call the police for help like a citizen or something, never got his money back even though the bullshit charge against him was dismissed. He couldn't pay his rent and was kicked out of his home. Kamala Harris says America is better than this. It would be "pretty to think so."
Full link to this story below; it is required reading.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle. Tickets are on sale now for his latest Nordo collaboration, "Curiouser and Curiouser," an adaptation of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." It promises to feel like an actual evening with SER (for good or for ill).