The federal government recently announced that the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office is once again eligible to participate in its Equitable Sharing Program for civil-asset forfeiture.
The program allows state and local law enforcement agencies and departments to make money from the property they seize during investigations, according to an article in the Carolina Journal. Under the program, agencies may keep 80 percent of the seizures, while the federal government retains 20 percent.
The department was banned from the program in 2004 after several sheriff’s deputies were convicted on corruption charges. In an investigation that became known as "Tarnished Badge," three deputies were convicted of armed robbery, money laundering, drug trafficking and kidnapping.
The men were also convicted on a charge of pirating satellite TV signals.
Agencies in the state made $17 million in 2018 from retaining cash or selling property under the program.
“This has been a huge undertaking and has taken almost a year to make recommended changes to earn the trust of not only all federal law enforcement agencies but the U.S. Attorney’s office as well,” said Robeson County Sheriff Burnis Wilkins, who was sworn into office last December.
Critics of the Equitable Sharing Program contend that departments should not be using forfeitures as a revenue stream for their budgets.
"We want law enforcement agencies to be adequately funded," said Jon Guze of the John Locke Foundation. "But it's wrong to let them fund themselves by preying on citizens."
"[The program] undermines constitutional policing, and it undermines due-process rights," said Leah Kang, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. "You need to have to make sure you have a criminal conviction in hand before you force someone to give up their property."
However, Eddie Caldwell of the North Carolina Sheriff's Association, notes that the Robeson County Sheriff's Office has sufficiently paid the price for its 15-year-old corruption case.
"That's not any reason to shut down an entire, successful program," Caldwell said.