HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Horry County chief deputy Tom Fox spoke on Wednesday about the impacts to the county if South Carolina lawmakers change rules and regulations surrounding civil forfeiture.
Fox said the current proposed bill will “greatly hinder” the office’s ability to fight illegal activity and could end up costing taxpayers.
“In it’s complete form that it is now, we oppose it completely because it really hinders law enforcement’s ability to attack criminal enterprises,” Fox said.
Civil forfeiture is a policing practice that allows law enforcement to seize cash and other assets from individuals.
Fox said the idea behind the practice is to target the motive behind illegal activity.
“One good way to hurt a drug dealer is to go after their ill begotten gains and hit them in the pocketbook," Fox said.
Law enforcement officials view it as a tool to attack assets involved in any illegal activity from drugs to human trafficking.
Under the current law, officers can can seize anything from cash to firearms to cars if they have a probable cause.
House Bill 3968 would do away with civil forfeiture and replace it with criminal forfeiture, which would only allow property to be taken from individuals who were convicted of a crime.
In civil forfeiture, law enforcement would have to prove that it’s more likely than not that that money or items came from illegal activity. Whereas in criminal forfeiture, law enforcement would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the items are associated with criminal activity.
While this change would decrease the number of individuals who are not charged or convicted of a crime but still have their assets seized, Fox explained the change would also have a negative impact.
“Often times when you investigate criminal enterprises, the person at the very top of the enterprise never touches the drugs but they handle a great deal of the money, either they launder it through illegal operations or businesses,” he explained.
He also explained individuals who transport drug money between locations are not associated with any criminal charge at the time they are pulled over, but that doesn’t mean the money isn’t associated with criminal activity.
Civil forfeiture allows individuals a chance to regain their property in court but this comes with time and money that not all individuals can afford. The proposed bill would increase the safeguards for due process and protection of constitutional rights for individuals.
After the court declares the forfeiture lawful, law enforcement agencies are able to keep the items seized and use it to help with the prevention of future drug sales.
Fox estimated the Sheriff’s Office generates an average of $50,000 to $75,000 a year from civil forfeiture. This money is used to buy things like a drone, undercover vehicles, training courses and other equipment that is not in the budget.
If the bill passes, the money seized from all departments would go into a general fund rather than back into individual budgets.
“Without the ability to do that the taxpayers of Horry County are going to have to pay for us to fight drug activity,” Fox said. “It makes sense for the people who are committing the crimes for us to be able to take that money from that and redirect it against the people who are selling illegal drugs.”
Fox said he does think aspects of the bill are good and police do need to be held more accountable for how they take items from the public.
“All it takes is maybe fine tuning the current legislation and then retraining the people who are seizing the money so that we have a stronger code of ethics and more consistency in what we seize,” Fox said.
He also said he would support creating a statewide data base to track forfeiture, training all officers on the practice and imposing a minimum on what officers can seize.
“Put a limit on it so it wouldn’t have an abuse if a small jurisdiction taking $200, $300 off of a guy on the street corner. You would have limits and it would more focus it on what it needs to be focusing on, the people who are making the most money off of it, the mid-level and the high level people in the drug organization or any criminal enterprise,” Fox said.
He said he thinks the bill has started a valuable conversation between the public and law enforcement that will eventually lead to long-term change.
“I think as a result of this legislation some good things are going to come out of it, not only for the people that have been wronged by illegal seizure but it will also tighten up the law enforcement efforts and bring everyone to a better form of ethical decision making when it comes to taking money from people,” Fox said.
But, he still believes the bill and the conversation need to go through a few steps before that benefit is achieved.
“I think what we can do through training of law enforcement officers and the tightening of the current statue will be a good result at the end of that but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater," Fox said.