FLORENCE COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – Local law enforcement used to get a piece of the millions of dollars confiscated from drug dealers to help fight drugs.
But in one swift move, the federal government has changed the game. And now, some fear this could end up costing taxpayers.
"I-95 is a major pipeline between north and south when it comes to weapons, drugs, money and what's sad is law enforcement across this nation is only seizing less than 5 percent of what's out there," said Florence County Sheriff Kenney Boone.
But now, there is fear that a federal blow to local budgets will make things even tougher.
"What's been taken from us right now is right at $180,000," Sheriff Boone explained.
Florence County and the 47 other counties in South Carolina used to get 70 percent of the money from drug busts where the DEA was involved, something called the "equitable sharing" of "civil asset forfeiture." This past year alone, the Florence County Sheriff's Office collected roughly $182,000 from it.
But in December, a federal budget shortfall prompted the Department of Justice to stop payment - all payments.
"It's going to be a problem," Boone said. "We rely a lot on that for our specialized equipment, things that we couldn't afford within out budget."
This includes things like cars - 30 or 40 of them - and the canine unit.
"It's going to hurt agencies across the state as well as across this nation," Boone said.
When asked where this leaves the public and their safety, Boone said: "It's gonna be a problem, a serious problem."
Seventh District U.S. Representative Tom Rice fully believes the program will continue eventually, but not in this political environment.
"I think what happened was the Department of Justice didn't like that Congress emptied their money bucket," Rice explained. "So the people at the DOJ wrote a letter and I think the administration doesn't like the program. So they wrote a letter saying Congress took this money out and is going to put the program in disarray."
This means departments like Sheriff Boone's are left to rely on state seizures for that additional money, and those dollars are much harder to come by.
"If we can't show drugs are in the proximity to the money, then we have to let them go," Boone said.
This differs from federal rules, which ask for proof of a drug "nexus" or relationship to the money. Boone, who is also president of the S.C. Sheriff's Association, said the state of South Carolina is much stricter.
Boone added it is frustrating that the federal government is, "just taking the thing from us which allows us to do our jobs better."
Not everyone agrees with the existing system. Asset forfeiture is becoming increasingly controversial and justice reformers call it, "policing for profit."
"We like to say this isn't about good or bad police officers; this is about good and bad incentives. And there's no question that civil forfeiture in S.C. and at the federal level provides bad incentives for law enforcement," said Robert Peccola with the Institute for Justice.
The IFJ gives South Carolina a D-minus grade for its state forfeiture laws, citing poor protection for property owners and a low threshold for confiscation that doesn't require conviction.
"We appreciate that law enforcement has a very difficult, very dangerous job, but the proper mechanism for funding law enforcement is not through money seized related to crime," Peccola argued.
The IFJ thinks reform is needed at the state and federal levels to protect the innocent.
"I don't really know many people who would say it's a bad idea," Boone said. "It's not like we are going out and taking their money. We build our cases on criminal indicators and ask questions."
But for now, the biggest question for Boone and law enforcement across the nation is this: will they ever see another dollar from a federal drug bust? A letter from the DOJ has left the window open and local agencies, including the FCSO, plan to fight by taking their concerns to Washington.
"I feel hopeful we will get the money back," Boone said. "It's just time will tell."