Horry County public safety departments could lose a significant amount of money due to changes to asset forfeiture laws.
The practice allows law enforcement departments to spend the money they make from property taken during drug busts, trafficking cases and a variety of other crimes. Lt. Jamie DeBari with the criminal investigations division said the money uses include training classes, undercover cars and even purchasing drugs to get evidence against traffickers.
On Tuesday, Horry County Council’s Public Safety Committee was briefed on how these changes would affect the budgets of local public safety divisions. In addition, the Horry County Sheriff’s Office and Solicitor’s Office use funds from asset forfeiture.
Locally, there is not an exact number of how much money Horry County takes in from forfeitures because it changes from year-to-year, but Horry County staff is working to give the county council a better idea of what the economic impact might be if these law changes are approved.
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“It’s a significant amount of money we use to combat crime in our community,” Horry County Police Chief Joseph Hill told the committee.
The South Carolina Legislature is asking for an impact study on how law changes would affect local departments if they lost the revenue from forfeiture programs.
The proposed law change — currently in the House of Representatives — would overhaul forfeiture regulations in South Carolina and has plenty of bi-partisan support. The change would not ban forfeiture outright, but aims to create more guidelines and protections for how the state can use those funds.
DeBari said depending on what the South Carolina House of Representatives does, the departments could be greatly affected in terms of funding. During the current legislative session, which lasts until May, the South Carolina House will be reevaluating how the money from forfeitures can be used, following an investigation into the practice by The Greenville News.
“Those funds would disappear and go directly to the state. So it would be up to the county to fund that portion,” DeBari said.
The state law changes would require a criminal conviction before the forfeitures could be used. Under the current law, property can be seized before a conviction is made.
DeBari added his department will continue to operate as it has under current state law, and if the law is changed, they will too.
A key aspect of the changes is to ensure property is returned to acquitted people or innocent family members in a timely manner. A similar bill is also in the State Senate.
The Greenville News story that sparked the conversation looked at agencies that did not return seized funds to people who were found to be innocent or had the case dismissed. DeBari said he could not speak for all South Carolina law agencies, but in his agency, if you’re found innocent, they’re going to give your stuff back.
“In Horry County, when we seize your funds from you or your vehicle or you property, you are being charged with dealing illegal drugs,” he said. “We’ve had instances here in Horry County where the case is dropped through the course of going through the Solicitor’s Office, through the judicial process. Those monies, those funds are returned to the individuals.”