WMBF Investigates: Do civil forfeiture cases always hit their mark?

WMBF Investigates: Do civil forfeiture cases always hit their mark?

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - When Braden Carlisle was pulled over for a traffic offense, he had no idea police could take him and his cash into custody.

Carlisle is one of more than 600 people who had their assets seized by law enforcement through Horry, Florence and Marion counties from 2014 to 2016.

His $6,600 is just a fraction of the $2.3 million forfeited to departments across the three counties during those years.

Civil forfeiture is a practice utilized by departments across the state. Officers call it an invaluable tool to target criminals’ motives by hitting them where it matters most – their pocketbooks.

“By taking the money, it takes it out of the pocket of the head guy,” Horry County Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said. “He or she doesn’t really care if one of their mules is locked up; what he cares about is the money.”

Richardson saw the effect of the practice firsthand in 2016 when he helped prosecute a ring of drug dealer known as the 24/7 Boyz that distributed cocaine across state lines.

The case eventually went federal and he said 10 of the 12 arrested have pleaded guilty.

“This is a perfect example of when it works. There can be no argument by any of our community that 24/7, this group of individuals selling out of New York and down through South Carolina, should not be able to retain the money they made by illegal sales,” Richardson said.

While its aim may be true, many, including state lawmakers are questioning if the practice always hits its intended target.

Carlisle traveled from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach for a weekend away in early May of 2016.

He and his friends were bartenders with cash tips and tax returns to spend.

“We decided to go gambling. Usually we go to the Big M Casino boat that is down there by the Myrtle Beach area,” he said. “In the meantime, we were just going to enjoy the beach and a few bars in that area.”

Shortly after arriving, Carlisle was pulled over by a police officer.

“We were pulled over and they initially got me out of the car and had me do a sobriety test, which I passed,” he recalled. “After they did the sobriety test, they did then search the car.”

Court documents state the officer found 3.6 grams of marijuana, pills “stamped with a kangaroo” that tested positive for MDMA (Ecstasy) and $6,600 in cash.

Carlisle was placed under arrest and his cash seized.

“It scared the heck out of me. I was like this is insane. This is insane. This is worse than the stuff you see on the movies. It was pretty bad,” Carlisle said.

Carlisle said the pills were his friend’s male enhancement pills and not MDMA at all.

Horry County court records show Carlisle’s charges were dismissed and he was able to win his money back, but he said it doesn’t feel like he won.

“It was more of a loss than anything. I mean, almost $10,000 total through this whole ordeal, so the victory, yes, of this not being on my record or anything and everything being dismissed and dropped but still this fiasco of the money being lost. I mean that’s something that I’m never going to see back,” he said.

After paying for bond and attorney fees, Carlisle said he got back less than a quarter of the original amount taken. It was cash that also belonged to his friends.

Carlisle’s case is unique but not rare.

Throughout Horry, Florence and Marion counties, only 50 percent of civil forfeiture cases led to a conviction between 2014 and 2016.

In 22 percent of cases, individuals had their assets seized but were never charged with a crime. This data comes from The Greenville News’ in-depth investigation across the state.

How it works

In South Carolina, officers can seize anything from drugs and cash to homes and boats.

The current law states officers just need “probable cause” that the assets are used in criminal activity.

It often is associated with drugs, but the funds also used to combat illegal gambling, human trafficking and counterfeit goods.

These seizures can take place during an undercover operation or after a routine traffic stop. Money can be taken if it is believed to be exchanged for drugs or even if it is next to drugs.

This money isn’t automatically kept by officers. Individuals have the right to fight the forfeiture in court.

If a judge rules the goods were rightfully seized, the seizing agency receives 75 percent of the funds and can only use the money for drug interdiction efforts and training and education.

“This is not some cowboy operation that the police are out there without constraints and no limitations and the public is being victimized here. That’s not what is happening here,” said Florence County Sheriff’s Maj. Mike Nunn. “This is an orderly process where everyone’s rights are protected all the way through and the public good is that ultimately criminals are denied the fruits of their efforts.”

Officers adamantly oppose the idea that civil forfeiture is “policing for profit,” but departments do make a significant amount of money each year.

Across the state, agencies collected $17 million from 2014 to 2016, according the Taken Investigation.

Locally, agencies in Horry, Florence and Marion counties collected $2.3 million from the practice.

The departments also took 154 guns, 41 cars and two homes.

Many understand and agree that criminals shouldn’t benefit from their illegal operations, but believe the process to do so may need to be revised.

“They can probably tighten it up a little bit but I think that has to do with law enforcement adhering to a strict code of ethics on when they seize it, how they seize it, and why they seize it,” said Horry County Chief Deputy Tom Fox.

The Institute for Justice, a national nonprofit research and policy organization, gave South Carolina’s law a D minus. The organization noted a lack of required conviction, poor protections for innocent third-party property owners and the large percent of money that goes to agencies as reasons behind the low rating.

While there is a chance for innocent individuals to fight for their assets back, the process isn’t always transparent or attainable.

When Carlisle was pulled over he said the officer originally told him he wouldn’t be able to get his money back.

“They said it was kind of a forfeiture just because there was drugs involved, that I wasn’t going to see the money back and that’s kind of something I didn’t inform my lawyer about any money because I was informed I wasn’t going to receive it back,” Carlisle said.

Hemingway-based attorney Doward Harvin said Carlisle’s case is similar to many that he deals with.

“I’ve seen situations where my clients tell me that they are being told on the side of the road, ‘Hey if you sign this over to us, we won’t charge you with X crime; we instead will charge you with this other crime,’ but in many instances what I see is that there is never anything that happens with that money,” Harvin said. “In many instances, I just see the person who deals with the criminal side and then the money just kind of evaporates.”

If an individual never shows up to court or responds to a summons, that money is considered a forfeiture. Many Horry County cases state, “It appears further that since the date of service no appearance, answer or other pleading have been filed by X or anyone on their behalf.”

“The process for attempting to get the money back is not one that is made public,” Harvin said. “In many jurisdictions people don’t even know there is a process and they don’t even follow through with the process.”

Ninety percent of the assets seized in the three counties was considered a forfeiture.

Since the cases are considered civil, individuals do not have the right to a court-appointed lawyer, which means they either have to have the money for an attorney or represent themselves. When only a few thousand dollars is taken from an individual, the cost to go through the process may be more than it is worth.

The Taken Investigation uncovered more than 55 percent of South Carolina cases involved less than $1,000.

A civil forfeiture process also takes time and requires individuals to navigate a complex legal process.

Carlisle said his case took over a year and involved traveling back and forth from Charlotte to Horry County.

Harvin said these gaps in the process are causing civil forfeiture to have an unintended consequence.

“People in poor African American communities are kind of taxed in a way that other communities aren’t taxed, and this tax is one that shouldn’t exist. It should not be one that just one group of people have to have a burden of,” he said.

The Greenville News Investigation found 65 percent of citizens targeted in civil forfeiture cases in the state were black males and at the same time white individuals were twice as likely to get their money back than African Americans.

State lawmakers are taking a step toward correcting these consequences.

A proposed bill in Columbia would eliminate civil forfeiture and require officers to only seize assets from an individual if they are criminally charged.

“That’s number one. That’s common sense. If you are looking to take money from criminals, first make sure they are a criminal,” Harvin said.

The bipartisan bill is co-sponsored by more than 80 state representatives.

If passed, S.C. would join 15 other states who now require a criminal conviction, according to the Institute for Justice.

The bill would also prohibit local agencies from benefiting from the assets they seize. Instead, the assets would be deposited into the state’s general fund.

“There is no doubt that that does provide an incentive for any law enforcement agency to seize properly any asset used in a criminal enterprise and it just enhances our ability to fight it more,” Nunn said of the profits the Florence County Sheriff’s Office receive from these cases.

He said the bill wouldn’t decrease their efforts to stop illegal activity but it would negatively affect a criminals’ perception.

“The criminal would interpret that as a green light to continue their criminal activity because the penalty would be I could get out and keep the ill-gotten gains that got me arrested in the first place,” Nunn predicted.

Other local law enforcement agencies said these changes would greatly hinder their ability to fight crime.

“We would not be able to attack the way that they secure these illegal narcotics and bring them into Horry County,” said Lt. Jamie DeBari with the Horry County Police Department.

Fox opposes the bill but does think the practice could use some improving. Still, he thinks doing away with civil forfeiture is not the answer.

“Often times when you investigate criminal enterprises, the person at the very top of the enterprise never touches the drugs but they handle a great deal of the money,” Fox said.

If the new bill passes, Fox said officers’ hands would also be cuffed if they found individuals transporting money from stash houses.

Fox does believe there should be a statewide tracking system and minimums set on how much can be taken.

“You would have limits and it would more focus it on what it needs to be focusing on, the people who are making the most money off of it, the mid-level and the high-level people in the drug organization or any criminal enterprise,” he said.

Agencies predict that without the ability to use money they seize, taxpayers will have to make up the cost.

“The taxpayers of Horry County are going to have to pay for us to fight drug activity. It makes sense for the people who are committing the crimes for us to be able to take that money from that and redirect it against the people who are selling illegal drugs,” Fox said.

Departments are currently in the process of sending the state how much the bill would financially impact them.

The new bill wouldn’t stop officers from taking assets away from criminals. Instead, it put more safe guards in place to ensure the practice is primarily affecting who it intends.

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