Asset Forfeiture and Drug Crimes Defense Lawyer in Charleston, SC
When law enforcement makes a drug case, whether it is after a traffic stop on the highway, a search of a residence, or just a search of someone’s pockets who was walking down the street, they will often seize the person’s money or property in addition to any drugs that are found.
This practice of “civil asset forfeiture” often goes unchallenged, and it is a source of millions of dollars of income to law enforcement agencies every year.
When is it legal for police to take your money or property, and is it possible to get your property back from the police?
What is Civil Asset Forfeiture in SC?
Civil asset forfeiture is the government seizure of property or assets that are used to facilitate crimes, and it has been around for hundreds of years.
For example, in 1822, the United States government seized the Spanish pirate ship Palmyra and sailed it to South Carolina. Although the Spanish government insisted that the United States return the ship, the United State Supreme Court held that the US government could keep the ship because, although no one had been convicted of a crime, the ship had been used to commit crimes…
200 years later, the US government has authorized civil asset forfeiture in many different circumstances. Particularly in the context of drug-related seizures, the asset forfeiture laws are routinely abused by law enforcement and are a primary source of income for many law enforcement agencies in South Carolina and nationwide.
What Kind of Property Can Law Enforcement Take Under SC Forfeiture Laws?
Police are authorized to seize a variety of different types of property under South Carolina forfeiture laws, including:
- Other negotiable instruments, securities, or other things of value;
- Real estate, including residences used in drug activity;
- Motor vehicles;
- Aircraft, boats, ships, or trailers; and
- Any materials or equipment used to transport, manufacture, deliver, or store drugs.
Can I Get My Property Back?
It doesn’t matter if you have been convicted of a crime, or even accused of a crime – civil asset forfeiture laws don’t require a drug conviction for the government to take your property.
They do have to establish probable cause that there is a connection between the property and drugs – for example, it was used to facilitate sales or deliveries, it was found in proximity to drugs, or it was proceeds from drug sales.
Once they establish probable cause, the burden shifts to you to prove that the money or other property came from a legitimate source. If the state fails to establish probable cause, or if you can establish the legitimate source of your property, the court will order the property to be returned to you.
There are other exceptions where the property can be returned to you – if, for example, you are a bona fide innocent owner, we can prove that in court and get your property back. If you loaned your car to your nephew, and, without your knowledge, your nephew drove across town to sell drugs and was arrested, the police cannot keep your car based on what your nephew was doing.
Although law enforcement is required under SC law to file a lawsuit against you (and the property) to get the court’s approval before keeping it, sometimes they do not file suit. If they have not filed suit within a reasonable amount of time after the seizure, we can then sue them for the return of the property.
Why Do Police Seize Money When the Forfeiture Laws Don’t Apply?
Police know that most people cannot afford to hire an attorney to get their money back – the attorney fees in many cases would exceed the amount of money that the police took, and there may not be enough at stake for an attorney to take the case on a 1/3 contingency basis.
So, they seize money whenever there are drugs found – even when they are not legally entitled to the money. They seize vehicles, even though the suspect is not the owner of the vehicle. They seize large amounts of cash, even when there is no evidence of drug dealing or trafficking.
The worst-case scenario is that the suspect will get an attorney and the court will make them return the money – the officers are not charged with a crime or even disciplined for illegally seizing funds. After all, many police departments rely on forfeiture funds to keep operating…
SC Asset Forfeiture and Drug Crimes Defense Attorney in Charleston
Don’t be a victim of highway robbery by the police.
If law enforcement has seized your money or property without probable cause, if you have documentation of the source of the property, or if you were an innocent third-party owner of the property, call Charleston, SC asset forfeiture lawyer Grant B. Smaldone now at (843) 808-2100 or fill out our online contact form to schedule a free consultation.