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Weekend Read: 'If I’d been white, I guarantee you they wouldn’t have taken my money'

“The robber didn’t get anything, but the police got everything.”

That’s what Isiah Kinloch told The Greenville News during its investigation into civil asset forfeiture in South Carolina.

Kinloch fought off a home intruder, sustaining head injuries that put him in the hospital. He called 911, and when North Charleston police arrived at his apartment, they found an ounce of marijuana, charged him with possession with intent to distribute, and seized the $1,800 in cash they found in his apartment.

The police were allowed to do that because of something called civil asset forfeiture, which empowers law enforcement agencies to seize cash or other assets based on the suspicion that they’re somehow connected to criminal activity. In many states, agencies are allowed to keep any money or other property they confiscate, creating an incentive for abuse.

When the charges against Kinloch were dropped, police didn’t give him his money back. Unable to pay rent, he was eventually forced to move out of his apartment.

“We’ve heard so many awful stories,” Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, told The Greenville News. “They say, ‘Oh yeah, we want to make sure that resources used for the trafficking of drugs are stopped’ … but many of the people they are taking money from are not drug traffickers or even users.”

In fact, civil asset forfeiture gives law enforcement the power to seize property from people even if they aren’t charged with a crime — and in South Carolina, that power is wielded disproportionately against black men like Kinloch.

Examining every court case that involved civil asset forfeiture in the state over a two-year period, The Greenville News found that black men made up 65 percent of the people who had property seized, though they’re just 13 percent of the population.

If you’re white, meanwhile, The Greenville News found that you’re twice as likely to get your money back.

“If I’d have been white, I guarantee you they wouldn’t have taken my money,” said Johnnie Grant, another black man in South Carolina. “They probably wouldn’t have even searched my car. They probably wouldn’t have even pulled me over.” 

There’s plenty of evidence for that. A 1992 investigation by The Orlando Sentinel found that nine out of every 10 motorists stopped and stripped of their cash in Volusia County, Florida, were either black or Hispanic.

Our own 2018 report found that even though just 4 percent of Marion County, Alabama, is black, in 38 percent of civil asset forfeiture cases linked to criminal charges, the person charged was black.

“Civil asset forfeiture, combined with the historic and consistent problems of racial profiling on our highways and byways, becomes very much part of a troubling equation,” Shelton told The Greenville News. “It’s been used in a racially discriminatory manner. The law must be fully reviewed.”

When we reviewed more than one thousand cases of civil asset forfeiture in Alabama last year, we discovered that law enforcement agencies raked in more than $5 million a year, with little or no accountability in terms of who they took it from or how they spent it.

As we wrote at the time, “The profit motive can too easily overshadow the fair administration of justice.”

Civil asset forfeiture just doesn’t square with the rest of our justice system, which prevents someone from being penalized when he hasn’t been convicted of a crime, as Louis Rulli, a law expert at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Greenville News.

“How could it be possible that my property could be taken when I am not even charged with any criminal offense? It seems un-American," he said.

Ten days ago, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that, in some cases, law enforcement agencies step over the constitutional line.

The court issued a unanimous ruling that the Eighth Amendment’s limit on “excessive fines” applies to seizures made by states under civil asset forfeiture laws. 

“The court’s decision will open the door to new legal arguments when the value of the property seized was out of proportion to the crimes involved,” Adam Liptak and Shaila Dewan wrote for The New York Times.

This is an issue that crosses partisan lines, uniting advocates on both sides of the political spectrum.

It’s time for all states to outlaw this abusive practice.

The Editors

P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week: 

SPLC's Weekend Reads are a weekly summary of the most important reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequity, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Reads every Saturday morning.

Photo by Alamy Stock Photo