South Carolina Politicians Seriously Considering Not Letting Cops Rob People Anymore
South Carolina law enforcement has a bad habit of using black people as their own personal ATMs. The Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail has exposed the shameful practice of civil forfeiture in its amazing TAKEN series. Anna Lee at the News published a chilling followup today about the town of Nichols, where cops functioned as modern-day pirates without the cool eyepatches. They stopped motorists and robbed them blind with only the merest whisper of due process.
Nichols, located about an hour north of Myrtle Beach, is a town that's been hit hard by the climate change the president claims doesn't exist. It's been in decline for a while. Textile plants closed. Retailers bolted. But it still boasted a revenue stream from tourists heading to the beach, and civil forfeiture made that stream a raging river.
reports that Nichols police "seized and kept nearly $50,000 from unsuspecting motorists" during 2014 through 2016. Only 358 people live in the town, which is sleepy to the point of comatose, so that comes out to roughly $139 per resident. That blows the doors off what other police departments in the state raked in. Nichols police claim this was all done to reduce crime. That is mostly bullshit.
Brandon Hamer... lost nearly all his cash when a Nichols officer pulled over his friend in March 2014. The police report said Hamer was cited for simple possession of marijuana and "voluntarily forfeited $542."
The officer gave Hamer back $42 for reasons not specified in the report.
FICA leaves you more of a cut from your own money than this cop did.
That same week, Joseph Burris lost $242 when he signed his cash over to police "because of its connection to the purchase of marijuana." He, too, was cited for simple possession and driving left of center, according to the officer's report, though no record of the charges can be found in public records.
Finally, someone is dealing with the scourge of left of center driving. A child -- if there are still children in Nichols -- might've been hurt while crossing one shuttered block of storefronts to another.
Seems like the motorists just "paid the toll" and moved on, not even bothering to contest the charges. If you're from out of town, it's probably more of an expense and hassle to return to Nichols for any followup legal proceeding. They mostly all signed waivers agreeing to forfeit their cash.
Nichols was a prime location for highway robbery. Lots of tourists pass through on their way to the beach. Many, police claim, were prepared to "party" (i.e. carry small amounts of pot that would never be used to commit actual crimes).
In March 2015, [Sgt. Keith Massey] seized $1,749 from David Jones after finding some loose marijuana in an ashtray, along with the remnants of four blunts, a forfeiture filing said. The combined weight of the marijuana was 0.70 grams, which would easily fit inside a soda bottlecap.
Nothing can "easily" fit inside a soda bottle cap. Was this theory tested in the field? Massey also stopped a guy for "speeding" and claimed to have probable cause to search his car because he smelled jazz cabbage. It's unclear how you would ever prove a cop didn't smell pot at the time of the search. America! Massey did find a shocking 2.7 grams of marijuana in the vehicle. We're not chemists but we think that's roughly less than a teaspoon. You need significantly more than that to get through Pink Floyd's The Wall. Massey walked off with $1,984 from the encounter.
Massey is an interesting case. Before he left the Nichols police force, he was honored for seizing 173 cloned credit cards worth more than $500,000. How'd he pull off this impressive feat of police work? His nose got a whiff of some narcotics in the car, which justified a vehicle search. He has a truly Fourth Amendment-defying sense of smell, doesn't he?
Thanks to the exposure from the TAKEN series, state representatives are taking action to end civil forfeiture. Last Wednesday, more than 80 state representatives cosponsored a bill that would put a stop to this awful practice.
"There are too many instances of individuals who have seen their private property seized by the state or federal government and never so much as be charged with a crime," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Alan Clemmons, told a press conference Wednesday. "Ladies and gentlemen, that's wrong."
Clemmons is a Trump-loving Republican who wears bow ties voluntarily. If this isn't evidence of a true bipartisan movement, nothing is. Let's hope it'll soon be safe to drive through South Carolina again.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He recently fled Seattle, where he did theatre work for Book-It Rep and Cafe Nordo.