It's not like we need any more evidence showing asset forfeiture has almost nothing to do with enforcing laws or breaking up criminal organizations. But law enforcement agencies just keep generating damning data.
The Charleston Post and Courier's article on the subject runs under an innocuous title that seems to put the blame on the federal government for the asset forfeiture sins of local police, but the article tells a completely different story. The officers and officials quoted in the story make noises about taking down criminals, but the greedy devil is in the details.
Every year in Spartanburg County, the Sheriff's Office organizes a week-long crackdown on Interstates 26 and 85 involving multiple local and federal agencies. They call it "Rolling Thunder."
Cool name. About as cool as the "interdiction teams" Rolling Thunder contains, which makes it sound as though officers are seriously engaged in disrupting drug trafficking. And the numbers here show the week-long effort did indeed result in a whole lot of searches.
During the March operation, deputies and their colleagues pulled over 1,110 motorists — the majority of whom were black or Hispanic — mostly for infractions such as making improper lane changes or following too closely. Police searched 158 vehicles, including large tour buses. Drug-detecting dogs sniffed around 105 vehicles, and the tour bus luggage…
But did it result in a whole lot of drug traffickers being shown the (jail) door? Of course not.
Just eight felony arrests were made, but police found and seized 233 pounds of marijuana, nearly 8 kilos of cocaine, 164 ounces of heroin, more than 4,800 prescription drug items, 65 grams of methamphetamine, $139,320 in cash and counterfeit consumer products.
Why even make the slightest effort to prosecute when civil asset forfeiture allows you to make nearly no effort at all? Here's Rolling Thunder "participant" trophy-winner Sheriff Chuck Wright making claims about the wondrous works of interdiction teams.
“You’re not going to do this here and get a free pass,” Wright said. “People in Spartanburg County elected me to enforce all laws, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“The proof is in the pudding. Look around. Do you want this in your street?” Wright said.
But a free pass is exactly what most people got. Eight felony arrests arising from 158 vehicle searches which turned up a whole bunch of drugs and cash. Not sure how a search-and-release program isn't a "free pass" or does anything to prevent more drugs from ending up on the street. Drug producers can always produce more drugs. And as long as their mules aren't sitting in jail, they should have little trouble moving product from point A to B.
The most damning fact is this: South Carolina law enforcement agencies simply stopped enforcing laws when told they weren't allowed to enrich themselves through asset forfeiture. When the federal government briefly shut down its equitable sharing program -- which allowed agencies to route around state forfeiture restrictions to stake a larger claim of seized property -- local agencies shut down their drug interdiction efforts.
"The tip of the spear has just been blunted — it’s got no point now," Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said at the time.
Hampton County suspended drug interdiction patrols until the payment program resumed.
This is the ugly reality of asset forfeiture. It's not about laws. Or drugs. Or taking down drug cartels. It's about taking stuff from people with a minimum of legal fuss. When the going gets tough, the tough shut down. What began as a well-intentioned notion has become a mockery of property rights and due process.