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SC town seized $135 for each resident during traffic stops

One small South Carolina town along a popular route to the beach seized the equivalent of $135 for each of its residents in traffic stops over two years, an investigation by two newspapers found.

Police in Nichols took a total of $50,000 from people in 50 different traffic stops in 2014 and 2015, according to The Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail.

Court records show only three of them were ever convicted of a crime, the newspapers reported in an installment of their “Taken” series , which is reviewing civil asset forfeiture cases in South Carolina.

The newspapers gathered court records on civil forfeiture from all 46 counties in South Carolina for the series and called every law enforcement agency in the state to see what they collected and how they spent seized assets. The series has led several lawmakers to back changing the law so money cannot be seized without a criminal conviction.

The officers involved in Nichols didn’t talk to the newspaper. The traffic stops ended after Nichols suffered its first of two massive floods in 2016.

Many of the people pulled over in Nichols signed consent agreements stating they would not be charged or have to return to town to deal with a ticket if they gave up cash, said Solicitor Ed Clements, the elected prosecutor for the area.

Nichols is at the intersection of two highways heading toward the Myrtle Beach area.

“It’s not as odd as you might think,” Clements said. “They’re going to the beach, and they’re going to party.”

Police departments have a vested interest in civil forfeiture laws since they get to keep the money seized. Without that reward, many officers probably wouldn’t investigate drug crimes as hard, South Carolina Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Jarrod Bruder told the newspapers.

If police don’t get to keep the money from forfeiture, “what is the incentive to go out and make a special effort?” Bruder said. “What is the incentive for interdiction?”

The newspapers also found seized money is important to a number of police agencies. They called each agency in South Carolina to see what they do with the assets.

The city of Clemson uses the money to pay for police dogs and its drug unit, Police Chief Jimmy Dixon said.

“Overall, our ability to conduct undercover narcotics operations could be stifled,” Dixon said.

Several legislators told the newspapers they plan introduce bills on Wednesday to reform civil asset forfeitures rules. One would create a database of seized asset cases. Another would require a conviction before law enforcement got the money.

The newspapers found law enforcement agencies seized $17 million over three years and about 65 percent of the people targeted for civil asset forfeiture from 2014 to 2016 were black males by reviewing records from all 46 South Carolina counties.

The newspapers also found nearly 20 percent of the more than 4,000 people who had money or items seized over three years were never charged with a crime, and another one in five were found not guilty or had charges dismissed.

“We need as much transparency as possible when the government seizes someone’s property. It has to be done properly and for just cause. Individuals do not need to have their property seized if they are not involved in a crime and they certainly don’t need to have their property seized if they are innocent,” Republican Rep. Jason Elliott of Greenville told the newspapers.

There also needs to be review of how police handle cases, said Republican Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort, who has already filed a bill to allow cases where less than $7,500 is seized to be handled in magistrate court, where it is easier for someone to act as their own lawyer.

“It goes to the very individuals that make the arrests and seizures,” Davis said. “I think that’s a bad policy. There shouldn’t be a monetary incentive.”

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