A surprise annual enforcement blitz in Spartanburg County is largely about stealing cash from harmless motorists, an analysis shows.
“Operation Rolling Thunder” is staged on one weekend per year, and draws in swarms of cops from around the state to participate. The date is held a secret.
Police issued a total of 1,300 traffic citations in just 4 days in October 2013, raking in big money for the county in fines and court costs.
However, fining drivers for burnt-out light bulbs and speeding is is only part of the excitement during the crackdown. The big prize is in summarily seizing cash from drug suspects.
Last October, the department raked in over $100,000.00 in confiscated cash, using a tactic known as civil asset forfeiture. This allows police to seize property on the spot — sometimes without even charging the owner with a crime — and forcing the owner to prove his innocence in court to retrieve the items or money. Often, the legal battle is more expense than the property itself, and can take many months.
The seizures of cash and property are then liquidated by the police and split up among the participating agencies, and then used to beef up their equipment and redouble their dubious efforts.
Spartanburg’s WSPA investigated the 2013 operation and found that in just one weekend, police stopped over 1,000 cars and proceeded to search 171 of them. Reporters asked Spartanburg Sheriff Chuck Wright if the operation was all about revenue generation, provoking an interesting response.
After a long pause, Sheriff Wright replied, “You know it’s a part of it, but it ain’t the main reason we do it.”
“It’s a bonus actually when you get the cash or you get the cars we seize and sell,” he said.
Of the 1,000 stops, only 34 people were charged with a crime, and most of those (62%) were for petty misdemeanor charges of “simple possession of marijuana” — being caught with less than an ounce.
Another enforcement blitz is on the calendar for this year, but is not forecast to the public for fear of diminished returns.
Operation Rolling Thunder is a prime example of how programs like civil asset forfeiture create an incentive to take police away from real crime in order to focus on traffic stops, searching vehicles, stealing cash, and arresting people over possession of plants. Indeed, America’s second experiment with prohibition has turned many agencies into antagonistic revenue generators rather than peacekeepers and public servants.