How police make millions by seizing ( but don’t call it stealing) property

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In South Carolina, civil forfeiture targets black people’s money most of all, exclusive investigative data shows
 
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.

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When Eamon Cools-Lartigue was driving on Interstate 85 in Spartanburg County, deputies stopped him for speeding. The Atlanta businessman wasn’t criminally charged in the April 2016 incident. Deputies discovered $29,000 in his car, though, and decided to take it.

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When Brandy Cooke dropped her friend off at a Myrtle Beach sports bar as a favor, drug enforcement agents swarmed her in the parking lot and found $4,670 in the car.

Her friend was wanted in a drug distribution case, but Cooke wasn’t involved. She had no drugs and was never charged in the 2014 bust. Agents seized her money anyway.

She worked as a waitress and carried cash because she didn’t have a checking account. She spent more than a year trying to get her money back.

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The Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail examined these cases and every other court case involving civil asset forfeiture in South Carolina from 2014-2016.

Our examination was aimed at understanding this little-discussed, potentially life-changing power that state law holds over citizens — the ability of officers to seize property from people, even if they aren’t charged with a crime.

The resulting investigation became TAKEN, a statewide journalism project with an exclusive database and in-depth reporting. It’s the first time a comprehensive forfeiture investigation like this has been done for an entire U.S. state, according to experts.

The TAKEN team scoured more than 3,200 forfeiture cases and spoke to dozens of targeted citizens plus more than 50 experts and officials. Additionally, the team contacted every law enforcement agency in the state.

This yielded a clear picture of what is happening: Police are systematically seizing cash and property — many times from people who aren’t guilty of a crime — netting millions of dollars each year. South Carolina law enforcement profits from this policing tactic: the bulk of the money ends up in its possession.

The intent is to give law enforcement a tool to use against nefarious organizations by grabbing the fruits of their illegal deeds and using the proceeds to fight more crime.

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.

That money adds up. Over three years, law enforcement agencies seized more than $17 million, our investigation shows.

“We’ve heard so many awful stories,” said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau. “Having cash makes you vulnerable to an illicit practice by a police organization.

“It’s a dirty little secret. It’s so consistent with the issue of how law enforcement functions. They say, ‘Oh yeah, we want to make sure that resources used for the trafficking of drugs are stopped’ … but many of the people they are taking money from are not drug traffickers or even users.”

These seizures leave thousands of citizens without their cash and belongings or reliable means to get them back. They target black men most, our investigation found — with crushing consequences when life savings or a small business payroll is taken.

Many people never get their money back. Or they have to fight to have their property returned and incur high attorney fees.

Police officials respond by saying forfeiture allows them to hamstring crime rings and take money from drug dealers, a move they say hurts trafficking more than taking their drugs.

In 2016, when a Myrtle Beach police unit broke up a sophisticated drug ring called the 24/7 Boyz that offered a dispatch system to order drugs and have them delivered on demand, the police used seizure powers. They took cars, firearms, a four-bedroom house and $80,000. They also arrested 12 people.

Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson initially prosecuted the case before turning it over to the federal government. In January, 10 of the 12 defendants pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges.

Richardson said taking a drug ring’s operating cash strikes a critical blow against traffickers in a way that criminal charges don’t. “A drug enterprise is an onion, it’s a multitude of layers,” he said. “Some tools hurt the traffickers, some hurt the enterprise itself. I feel this hurts the enterprise.”

Agencies also said funding for their work would be imperiled without the profit from this tool. Clemson Police Chief Jimmy Dixon said losing those profits could shut down his agency’s K-9 unit entirely. Undercover narcotics operations overall would suffer, Dixon said, citing limits on the department’s operating budget.

 

The TAKEN investigation key findings:

•  Black men pay the price for this program. They represent 13 percent of the state’s population. Yet 65 percent of all citizens targeted for civil forfeiture in the state are black males.

“These types of civil asset forfeiture practices are going to put a heavier burden on lower-income people,” said Ngozi Ndulue, recently a national NAACP senior director, now working at the Death Penalty Information Center. “And when you add in racial disparities around policing and traffic stops and arrest and prosecution, we know this is going to have a disproportionate effect on black communities.”

•  If you are white, you are twice as likely to get your money back than if you are black.

•  Nearly one-fifth of people who had their assets seized weren’t charged with a related crime. Out of more than 4,000 people hit with civil forfeiture over three years, 19 percent were never arrested. They may have left a police encounter without so much as a traffic ticket. But they also left without their cash.

Roughly the same number — nearly 800 people — were charged with a crime but not convicted.

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.”

In some states, the suspicions behind a civil forfeiture must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in court, but there is no requirement of proof in South Carolina. When a forfeiture is contested, prosecutors only have to show a preponderance of evidence to keep seized goods.

Police don’t just seize cash.

Practically anything can be confiscated and sold at auction: jewelry, electronics, firearms, boats, RVs. In South Carolina, 95 percent of forfeiture revenue goes back to law enforcement. The rest is deposited into the state’s general fund.

•  Most of the money isn’t coming from kingpins or money laundering operations. It’s coming from hundreds of encounters where police take smaller amounts of cash, often when they find regular people with drugs for personal use. Customers, not dealers. More than 55 percent of the time when police seized cash, they took less than $1,000.

•  Your cash or property can disappear in minutes but take years to get back. The average time between when property is seized and when a prosecutor files for forfeiture is 304 days, with the items in custody the whole time. Often, it’s far longer, well beyond the two-year period state law allows for a civil case to be filed. But only rarely are prosecutors called out for missing the filing window and forced to return property to owners.

•  The entire burden of recovering property is on the citizens, who must prove the goods belong to them and were obtained legally. Since it’s not a criminal case, an attorney isn’t provided. Citizens are left to figure out a complex court process on their own. Once cases are filed, they have 30 days to respond. Most of the time, they give up.

•  The bulk of forfeited money finances law enforcement, but there’s little oversight of what is seized or how it’s spent. Police use it to pay for new guns and gear, for training and meals and for food for their police dogs. In one case, the Spartanburg County sheriff kept a top-of-the-line pick-up truck as his official vehicle and sold countless other items at auctions.

In many other places, changes are being made: 29 states have taken steps to reform their forfeiture process. Fifteen states now require a criminal conviction before property can be forfeited, according to the Institute for Justice, a non-profit libertarian law firm.

South Carolina lawmakers have crafted reform bills in recent General Assembly sessions, but none of the efforts made it out of committee.

To critics, South Carolina is the poster child for the injustice inherent in the for-profit civil forfeiture system, said Louis Rulli, a law expert at the University of Pennsylvania.

Forfeiture doesn’t square with the rest of the justice system, Rulli said. “How could it be possible that my property could be taken when I am not even charged with any criminal offense? It seems un-American,” he said.

Those who pay the biggest price are black men. Men like Kinloch. While he was hospitalized for a head injury from a home intruder, North Charleston police removed money from the tattoo artist’s apartment.

That department earns 12 percent of their annual operating budget from cash and property seized under civil law, our investigation shows.

“The robber didn’t get anything, but the police got everything,” said the 28-year-old Kinloch.

Police charged him with possession with intent to distribute after finding the marijuana in his apartment, but the charge was dismissed.

Kinloch never got his cash back.

Rent was due.

Without his $1,800, he couldn’t pay the landlord and was forced out of his home.

More: He fought off a robber, but police seized his $1,800

Kinloch isn’t alone as a black man facing forfeiture over small, or nonexistent, criminal charges in South Carolina. Our investigation found that black men make up the largest share by far of people targeted for civil forfeiture, much higher than even the drug arrest or incarceration rate for black men. Read about our exclusive findings here: 

Black men pay the price for SC civil forfeiture program

Atlanta musician Johnnie Grant jerked awake in the back seat as blue lights flashed and a Greenville sheriff’s deputy leaned in to question his driver.

Grant, his photographer and a videographer were on their way to a show in Charlotte in March 2017.

The deputy picked out his target among hundreds of cars that pass through the stretch of Interstate 85 near White Horse Road every hour. He said he pulled over the rented Chevrolet Malibu and its three black occupants for following too closely.

He and other deputies soon asked the men to step out of the car, searched it and found 1.5 ounces of marijuana inside a jar in the videographer’s backpack.

When deputies opened Grant’s bag, they found $8,000 wrapped in rubber bands. All three were charged with marijuana possession, even though the videographer explained it was his personal stash. The deputies took Grant’s cash and told him it was drug money.

“If I’d have been white, I guarantee you they wouldn’t have taken my money,” the 30-year-old Grant said. “They probably wouldn’t have even searched my car. They probably wouldn’t have even pulled me over.”

It fits the pattern. Black men carry the burden of South Carolina’s civil forfeiture program. Almost two-thirds of people targeted by forfeiture are black males, according to TAKEN investigation data analysis. Yet they represent just 13 percent of the general population.

Hilary Shelton, the NAACP Washington bureau director, said the organization worries the racial targeting in South Carolina is even worse than has been reported.

“Civil asset forfeiture, combined with the historic and consistent problems of racial profiling on our highways and byways, becomes very much part of a troubling equation,” he said. “It’s been used in a racially discriminatory manner. The law must be fully reviewed.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. “Policy” officers enforce policy, and their policy mandate is to seize as much wealth and productivity from the public as possible. The wealth is the obvious part, but the productivity is stolen in lost wages, time behind bars on trumped-up charges (at taxpayer expense), and so on. Guaranteed they know who the “king pins” are, and also guaranteed those individuals are 100% protected by the same authorities and courts allowing this to happen. Presumption of guilt is Napoleonic Law, and the “emperor” will decide your crime and fate long before you step into any courtroom. The notion that we’re safe from government tyranny because “you have nothing to hide” is laughable. Such things simply do not occur in a free society; the fact that they do occur every day, means our freedom was forfeit long ago.

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