COLUMBIA, S.C. (Dec. 22, 2020) – A bill prefiled in the South Carolina Senate would reform the state’s asset forfeiture laws and prohibit the state from taking a person’s property without a criminal conviction. The proposed law would also opt South Carolina out of a federal program that allows police to bypass more strict state asset forfeiture laws.

Sen. Gerald Malloy (D-Darlington) filed Senate Bill 70 (S70) on Dec. 9. Under the proposed law, prosecutors could not proceed with asset forfeiture proceedings without a criminal conviction. The legislation would explicitly end civil asset forfeiture in the state.

S70 also address the policing for profit motive inherent in the current forfeiture process. Forfeiture proceeds would be deposited to the county’s general fund after paying various expenses. As it stands, 95 percent of forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement, with 75 percent going to police agencies and 20 percent to prosecutors.

Under current South Carolina forfeiture procedures, the state can take a person’s property without even charging them with a crime. The Institute for Justice gave South Carolina a D- grade for its current forfeiture laws, saying, “South Carolina’s civil forfeiture laws offer very little protection for property owners.”

S70 includes important provisions that would opt South Carolina out of a federal asset forfeiture program. This is particularly important in light of a  policy directive issued in July 2017 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the Department of Justice (DOJ) that remains in effect today.


Equitable Sharing” allows prosecutors to bypass more stringent state asset forfeiture laws by passing cases off to the federal government through a process known as adoption. The new DOJ directive reiterates full support for the equitable sharing program, directs federal law enforcement agencies to aggressively utilize it, and sets the stage to expand it in the future.

Law enforcement agencies often bypass more strict state forfeiture laws by claiming cases are federal in nature. Under these arrangements, state officials simply hand cases over to a federal agency, participate in the case, and then receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds. However, when states merely withdraw from participation, the federal directive loses its impact.

Until recently, California faced this situation. The state has some of the strongest state-level restrictions on civil asset forfeiture in the country, but state and local police were circumventing the state process by passing cases to the feds. According to a report by the Institute for Justice, Policing for Profit, California ranked as the worst offender of all states in the country between 2000 and 2013. In other words, California law enforcement was passing off a lot of cases to the feds and collecting the loot. The state closed the loophole in 2016.

S70 would close the loophole with the following language.

(A) A law enforcement agency shall not refer, transfer, or otherwise relinquish possession of property seized under state law to a federal agency by way of adoption or other means for the purpose of the property’s forfeiture under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

(B) A law enforcement agency may not transfer a criminal investigation or proceeding to the federal government with the sole intention of circumventing state forfeiture law.

(C) In a case in which the aggregate net equity value of the property and currency seized is fifty thousand dollars or less, excluding the value of contraband, a law enforcement agency participating in a joint task force or other multi-jurisdictional collaboration with the federal government shall transfer responsibility for the seized property to the prosecuting agency for forfeiture under state law.

(D) If the federal government prohibits the transfer of seized property and currency to a prosecuting agency as required by subsection (C) and instead requires the property be transferred to the federal government for forfeiture under federal law, then the law enforcement agency is prohibited from accepting payment of any kind or distribution of forfeiture proceeds from the federal government.

As the Tenth Amendment Center previously reported the federal government inserted itself into the asset forfeiture debate in California. The feds clearly want the policy to continue.


We can only guess. But perhaps the feds recognize paying state and local police agencies directly in cash for handling their enforcement would reveal their weakness. After all, the federal government would find it nearly impossible to prosecute its unconstitutional “War on Drugs” without state and local assistance. Asset forfeiture “equitable sharing” provides a pipeline the feds use to incentivize state and local police to serve as de facto arms of the federal government by funneling billions of dollars into their budgets.


While some people believe the Supreme Court “ended asset forfeiture, its opinion in Timbs v. Indiana ended nothing. Without further action, civil asset forfeiture remains. Additionally, as law professor Ilya Somin noted, the Court left an important issue unresolved. What exactly counts as an “excessive” in the civil forfeiture context?

“That is likely to be a hotly contested issue in the lower federal courts over the next few years. The ultimate effect of today’s decision depends in large part on how that question is resolved. If courts rule that only a few unusually extreme cases qualify as excessive, the impact of Timbs might be relatively marginal.”

Going forward, opponents of civil asset forfeiture could wait and see how lower federal courts will address this “over the next few years,” or they can do what a number of states have already taken steps to do, end the practice on a state level, and opt out of the federal equitable sharing program as well.


S70 will be officially introduced when the South Carolina legislature convenes for the 2021 session. It will be referred to the Senate Committee on Judiciary where it will have to pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.

Mike Maharrey