Scouring I-85 and I-26 for motorists, almost 90 officers from 21 different law enforcement agencies conducted their annual “Operation Rolling Thunder” last October in Spartanburg County, S.C. Every year, police stop well over a thousand cars as a way to combat drug trafficking and get tough on crime.
But the vast majority of drivers caught in the operation’s dragnet weren’t felons, according to a recent investigation by WSPA. Last October, officers searched 171 cars, wrote over 300 speeding tickets and issued 1,300 traffic citations in just 4 days. Out of more than 1,000 vehicles stopped, only 34 people were charged with a crime. Last year’s Operation Rolling Thunder netted only a single felony conviction and seven felony arrests; two of those cases have already been dismissed.
In addition to fighting crime, supplementing police budgets seems to be behind this operation. In 2013, police seized almost $100,000, using a tactic known as civil forfeiture. Under civil forfeiture, someone does not have to be convicted or charged with a crime to permanently lose his property. In fact, the cash seized during Rolling Thunder funds future operations. The amount of cash taken from these operations has varied wildly, ranging from $25,000 in 2012 to over $3 million in 2007, the operation’s first year.
According to the Institute for Justice’s report, “Policing for Profit,” South Carolina merited a D+ for its abysmal civil forfeiture laws. In South Carolina, the government only needs to show probable cause that the property is related to a crime to subject it to civil forfeiture. To put that in perspective, more than forty other states require more evidence for civil forfeiture cases.
Furthermore, probable cause is the same standard used for a search warrant and is far lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” evidentiary standard used in criminal convictions. In addition, law enforcement in South Carolina can keep up to 95 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property, leading to a perverse incentive to “police for profit,” instead of the fair administration of justice.
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— Nick Sibilla
Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice