About F%$#ing Time

I do not know if this ruling will stand, but a judge in South Carolina has ruled that the states asset forfeiture programs are unconstitutional:

Asset forfeiture certainly seems unconstitutional. But we don’t have a lot of case law actually saying that. Something that began in the United States as a way to punish wrongdoers located elsewhere in the world, but whose property (usually a ship and its contents) had sailed into US jurisdiction, is now used by American law enforcement to take cash, vehicles, and whatever else they can haul away from people they think smell like weed.


So, asset forfeiture continues pretty much unabated. Fortunately, there’s been another ruling handed down that says pretty much everything about civil asset forfeiture is unconstitutional… in multiple ways. The downside is that, for now, it only affects part of one state.

A South Carolina circuit court judge in Horry County has ruled the state’s civil asset forfeiture law unconstitutional, in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth, Fifth and 14th amendments.

While the decision by 15th Circuit Court Judge Steven H. John doesn’t set precedent beyond his courtroom, it could set the table for a state appellate court to determine whether South Carolina needs to enact reforms to its law.


The decision [PDF] doesn’t pull any punches. Judge John can’t find anything he likes about the state’s forfeiture programs. First up, it’s the Eighth Amendment, which — as incorporated by South Carolina’s Constitution — forbids excessive fines. Here, the judge draws the line the Supreme Court of the United States didn’t: forfeitures without convictions makes any seizure excessive. [emphasis in the original]

This Court finds that South Carolina’s forfeiture statutes violate both the federal and South Carolina constitutional protections against excessive fines by permitting the government to seize unlimited amounts of cash and other property without regard to the proportionality of the crime that may have been committed. Indeed, they allow the government to seize unlimited amounts of cash and other property when no crime has been committed, without a criminal conviction and without proof of a crime having been committed beyond a determination of probable cause.

[S]outh Carolina’s forfeiture statutes would allow law enforcement to seize millions in assets from an individual when the maximum fine authorized by law is minimal or when no crime has been committed at all. This unfettered authorization to seize unlimited amounts of property from citizens without regard to the proportionality of the offense committed — indeed, without evidence proving that the individual committed an offense — compels this Court to find that the statutory scheme is unconstitutional and must be invalidated…


Judge John pitches a shutout. Asset forfeiture in almost any form is unconstitutional. Civil asset forfeiture in any form is unquestionably unconstitutional. Where the government chooses to take this from here will be interesting. Does it take the loss and limit the damage to this judge’s courtroom, meaning it will have to hope any forfeiture proceedings it engages in are routed around this new damage? Or does it challenge the ruling and risk having this spread across the state? If the agencies affected are greedy enough, they might just act against their own interest. And that could be good news for South Carolinians.

It’s been clear for decades that asset forfeiture amounts to little more than legalized theft, and the scale of this theft is literally larger than what actually occurs from our so called criminal element.

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