Drivers passing through a rural stretch of North Carolina might be seeing red in their rear-view mirrors this holiday season, now that Robeson County sheriff’s deputies have an incentive to pursue green in the form of seized cash.
Following a 17-year pause, the county rejoined a federal program on Nov. 21 that has been a moneymaker for years in other jurisdictions.
With the Robeson County Sheriff’s Department back on board, every vehicle at the crossroads of Interstate 95 and Interstate 74 will be a potential ATM for police perks. That’s about 50,000 new revenue opportunities per day.
The partnership will allow task force members to seize and keep the property they find during traffic stops, even if they never charge the drivers with a crime. Federal prosecutors will need to meet only the lower burden of proof that applies in civil matters.
The difference is huge when an officer finds cash in your glovebox or suitcase, even if the money is for a vehicle purchase, holiday gift or some other legitimate purpose.
Program participants in search of revenue must show only that the money is related to a crime by a “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning 51 percent likelihood, rather than the criminal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
And because the cases are civil rather than criminal, citizens who fight back will have no right to a government-appointed attorney. They must fund their own defenses.
Most victims just walk away, especially when attorneys’ fees outweigh the value of the property in question. Policing for Profit, a 2015 report from the Institute for Justice, found that 88 percent of federal seizures never make it before a judge.
North Carolina specifically prohibits the heavy-handed police tactic, called civil forfeiture.
Under state law, prosecutors must win a criminal conviction before they can take and permanently keep someone’s car, jewelry, cash or other valuables. The only exception is for racketeering cases.
Even then, seized funds must go to support public schools, which largely eliminates the temptation to turn forfeiture programs into revenue machines for cash-strapped police departments.
North Carolina’s protections for property rights are among the strongest in the United States. But local agencies that team up with the federal government can make an end run around state law.
The only catch is they must share their takings with their U.S. Justice or Treasury department partners.
Hundreds of law enforcement agencies around the country enthusiastically embrace the “equitable sharing” scheme. Forfeiture funds received in the nationwide program have quadrupled in recent years, climbing from $472,000 in 2001 to more than $2 billion in 2017.
The last time Robeson County participated, things quickly spiraled out of control.
Operation Tarnished Badge, the largest investigation of police corruption in North Carolina history, uncovered crimes ranging from drug trafficking to money laundering.
More than 20 officers faced charges following the 2002 sting. Now, after a 17-year timeout, the county has won a second chance in the program. What possibly could go wrong?
Corruption remains a risk. But Dan Alban, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, has other concerns. He says civil forfeiture is inherently abusive, which means the county will violate citizens’ rights even if every sworn officer stays within the lines.
“It’s not a problem of corruption,” Alban says. “It’s a problem of perfectly good cops responding to the financial incentives. If suddenly they can keep the money they find during traffic stops — and they don’t have to send it to schools — then they start seeing the highways that run through their jurisdictions as potential revenue pipelines.”
Advocates justify the program by citing public safety. But Fighting Crime or Raising Revenue?, a separate Institute for Justice study from June 2019, points to cash as the real motivator.
The analysis of more than 10 years of data from the equitable sharing program shows that when police budgets tighten due to economic pressure, equitable sharing activities increase. Just a 1 percentage point rise in local unemployment — a standard proxy for fiscal stress — is associated with a 9 percentage point jump in equitable sharing seizures.
Unfortunately, the study shows that the extra money does not translate into more crimes solved or less drugs consumed.
Police might not care about the lack of results. But anyone driving through North Carolina will have reasons for concern the next time an officer asks them to turn off the engine and step out of the vehicle.