In November 2015, officers from the Bluffton Police Department arrested an individual with numerous warrants for trafficking and possession of illegal and controlled drugs, as well as evading police.
The suspect tossed a backpack while trying to escape. It contained 357 Xanax pills, 79 Hydrocodone pills, 5.44 grams of heroin, two stolen guns and more. Officers confiscated the backpack and its contents.
Because there was probable cause that the backpack was involved in a crime, the individual “forfeited” it and everything in it. Had he been driving a car, he would have lost the right to possess that too, because it would fall under a state statute that covers forfeiture of property connected to crime.
“If a piece of property has a connection to the sale, distribution or manufacture of narcotics then it can be seized in accordance with South Carolina state law,” said Bluffton Police Chief Joey Reynolds. “We’ve seized various amounts of monies from suspects who have been charged with the sale, distribution or manufacture of narcotics.”
The department mostly confiscates prescription pills, marijuana and cocaine, Reynolds said. The drugs confiscated from the backpack mentioned earlier had a street value of $7,300.
What is forfeiture?
Section 44-53-520 of the Code of Laws of South Carolina covers forfeitures. The owner forfeits or loses possession of anything used to make, transport, conceal, distribute or sell illegal drugs, as well as any funds connected to the crime.
A law enforcement agency that has a court-issued warrant may seize the property.
In a few instances, property may be seized without a specific warrant, including but not limited to if the law enforcement agency feels it is directly or indirectly dangerous to health or safety, or there is probable cause to believe that the property was used or is intended to be used in violation of the forfeiture statute.
In Beaufort County, the office of the Fourteenth District Solicitor must confirm that the property has a strong link to a crime and that the police properly seized it during an investigation.
The solicitor’s office must ensure that the seizure was lawful and accomplished with a valid court-issued warrant – unless there are the exceptions as mentioned – and that everything seized is documented.
After confirming everything was legally processed, the owners have the opportunity to prove that the items or property had no connection with the crime. If proven, owners retain the property. If not, the police or agents who carried out the investigation maintain control of the property for further action.
What can be forfeited?
In addition to illegal drugs and monies associated with the sale of such, other items might be confiscated.
High value real and personal property, such as money, cars and cellphones, are also at risk. Homes, warehouses and other buildings used in the commission of many crimes can and have been seized by law enforcement agencies across the country since drug-related seizures began in the 1980s.
Drug-related crimes are not the only ones subject to forfeiture laws.
When the South Carolina General Assembly passed a human trafficking statute two years ago, Fourteenth District Solicitor Duffy Stone said that those who pushed for the law, including himself, made sure part of the penalty included forfeiture of property.
“When you’re dealing with financially motivated crimes, financial punishment has a deterrent effect,” said Stone. “The ability to seize assets or ill-gotten gains is very effective. It’s more immediate than a fine, which in many cases is not paid.”
What happens next?
According to state law, said Reynolds, seized property goes to an auction and the revenue goes into a forfeiture account. The department’s evidence technician follows legal procedures to dispose of seized drugs.
The Bluffton police frequently work with the FBI, DEA, Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies, Reynolds said. The law enforcement agencies that participated in a particular case divide the auction revenue, with the largest share going to the department that initiated the investigation.
Forfeiture revenue received by the Bluffton department will pay for equipment, training and running a Special Investigations Unit formed in January. Officers on the police force are part of the unit and paid as part of the Investigations Division budget, which is part of the overall BPD budget.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.