Lawsuit Seeks Records for Operation Rolling Thunder in Spartanburg County, South Carolina
Sheriff Refuses to Comply with Freedom of Information Act
ARLINGTON, Va.—A lawsuit filed late yesterday against Spartanburg County and the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office seeks to compel public access to records related to an annual weeklong search-and-seizure blitz known as “Operation Rolling Thunder.”
During Operation Rolling Thunder, law enforcement agencies take to the highways in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, and stop as many vehicles as possible—often on the thinnest of pretexts—to seize and forfeit property. The lawsuit seeks information under the authority of South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act, which requires government agencies to function openly.
The Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office and assisting agencies searched 144 vehicles and seized nearly $1 million in cash as part of Operation Rolling Thunder from October 1-7, 2022. At least one of these traffic stops led to a federal civil rights complaint. The lawsuit seeks details about all 144 vehicle searches.
The lawsuit is filed on behalf of South Carolina resident Adrianne Turner, who submitted her request on May 12, 2023, following two similar requests from the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm conducting research for its Project on the Fourth Amendment.
Spartanburg County denied all three requests, prompting today’s lawsuit. National law firm Latham & Watkins represents Turner with support from the Institute for Justice. South Carolina lawyer Jake Erwin is also representing Turner as local counsel.
“Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright calls a news conference each year to announce the results of Operation Rolling Thunder,” says Daryl James, a writer with the Institute for Justice who filed the initial public records request on October 11, 2022. “But he only provides information favorable to his agency.”
The lack of transparency allows Spartanburg County to control the narrative surrounding Operation Rolling Thunder while hiding possible abuses of power.
“The sheriff spoon-feeds information to the public,” Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Rob Johnson says. “People have a right to know what is going on behind the press conference podium. If the government can pick and choose what facts to release, then anything abusive or unflattering will stay hidden.”
One concern with Operation Rolling Thunder is the aggressive pursuit of money through civil forfeiture. This law enforcement maneuver allows the government to seize and keep property without a criminal conviction. Even an arrest is optional.
South Carolina allows participating law enforcement agencies to keep 95 percent of the proceeds from civil forfeiture, creating a perverse incentive to search as many vehicles as possible. “The result can be policing for profit, which occurs when agencies shift their focus from public safety to revenue,” Johnson says.
Spartanburg County cites three reasons for its denial of Turner’s request. It claims her request is repetitive because it matches the previous requests from the Institute for Justice. It claims her request is “unduly burdensome.” And it claims her request seeks records that do not exist—a cynical attempt to shift the burden onto citizens to know what format the county uses for recordkeeping before citizens can inspect records to know what they look like.
South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act does not support any of these reasons for denial. “Defendants have not asserted any legitimate grounds to withhold these public records,” the complaint alleges.