A controversial program used by the Greenville County Sheriff's Office to fund essential operations has collected more than $1 million over the past five fiscal years, according to a review of records obtained by The Greenville News.
The majority of funds collected by the Sheriff’s Office under the state’s asset seizure law are used to keep three aircraft flying and its K-9 teams fed and trained, according to records obtained under the state's Freedom of Information Act.
Asset seizure money, commonly referred to as “drug money,” also is used to support undercover vice operations, including nearly $26,000 for an undercover investigation of a Greenville strip club.
Money from asset seizures is separate from the Sheriff’s Office’s annual budget, but without the funds, some tools deputies depend on wouldn’t be available.
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“We would not have the helicopter at all without drug money,” said Linda Cobb, Greenville County’s financial manager. “It was purchased with drug money. We fund everything for it ─ repairs, fuel, insurance.”
Seizing money connected to criminal activity is common. South Carolina law enforcement agencies collected an estimated $22.7 million in forfeiture revenue from 2009 to 2014, according to an Institute for Justice study. The Institute for Justice has criticized law enforcement for asset seizure operations which do not require criminal charges or convictions.
“That introduces a significant financial incentive to pursue revenue generation rather than the unbiased administration of the law,” said Dick Carpenter, director of strategic research at the Institute for Justice.
The Department of Justice last month announced it was suspending its equitable sharing program that allowed law enforcement to seize assets under federal law and keep up to 80 percent of the haul. This does not affect the Sheriff’s Office's drug seizure account, which takes assets under state law.
When asked what would happen if the Sheriff's Office did not collect enough drug seizure money to cover operating expenses for the K-9 unit and aircraft, Sheriff Steve Loftis said, “We will have to cross that bridge if it ever materializes.”
Revenue, expenses vary each year
Seizure money can be spent on anything to enhance or maintain operations of the vice and narcotics units, Cobb said.
In fiscal year 2015, spending included $13,000 in cell phone bills, and $19,650 in two months during the undercover investigation into Platinum Plus, a strip club located on Frontage Road. Overall the Platinum Plus investigation encompassed two fiscal years and cost about $26,000, nearly 14 percent of the money spent in the 2015 fiscal year.
“A big case like this, we had to think, ‘OK, what is an appropriate way to cover the rest of the expense,” Cobb said.
The Sheriff's Office logged $232,756 in revenue for the drug seizure account during the 2015 fiscal year and $190,249 in expenditures, according to county reports. Loftis approves spending.
The account is subject to an audit each year during the county’s annual external audit, which was performed by the Elliott Davis firm in 2015.
The Greenville County Finance Department reviews all invoices from the drug seizure account, Cobb said.
The Sheriff’s Office spent about $48,000 on K-9s during fiscal year 2015.
The K-9 unit consists of 13 dogs, 11 are patrol dogs used for tracking, searching, apprehension and drug detection, Sgt. Patrick Donohue said. Two others are bloodhounds that specialize in finding missing persons.
In 2014, the K-9s were used 1,825 times, leading to the 728 arrests and 1,524 served warrants, Donohue said. The Sheriff's Office K-9s also are used to assist other law enforcement agencies in the Upstate, including federal authorities. The K-9s were involved in the seizure of more than $1 million, a gross amount which includes operations in other jurisdictions, Donohue said.
“For a minimal expenditure, the use of the K-9s allow us to find things that we would not otherwise find – be it people, be it drugs, be it things that are hidden, things that are thrown that the human eye just can’t find,” Donohue, who supervises the K-9 unit, said. “The dogs use their keen and acute sense of smell to locate people, drugs, weapons, explosives, accelerants, all kinds of things. And at the end of the day, most importantly, the dogs are there to provide a level of protection to the officers and the public.”
Drug seizure account revenue and expenses fluctuate yearly. In a criminal investigation, police only need probable cause, not convictions, to seize assets.
It can sometimes take years for seized assets to go through the forfeiture process, officials said. The court system decides at the end of a trial what happens to the seized property, the Sheriff's Office said.
In September 2013, the Sheriff's Office raided the residence of a man suspected of illegal activity. Deputies seized $67,953 in cash from his home in Greer, plus marijuana, cocaine and guns. The FBI took over the investigation, and eventually the Sheriff’s Office received more than $50,000, after the state and the Solicitor's Office received a portion.
How are the helicopters used?
The Sheriff’s Office has two helicopters and a Cessna airplane. One of the helicopters, a Huey military-grade aircraft was used on two missions in two years, one each in 2013 and 2014. All other uses were for training or demonstrations, according to the most recent annual reports of flight hours obtained by The News.
The Huey can carry up to a dozen people and has been used to fight fires, the Sheriff’s Office said. Despite its rare usage, Loftis said the Huey is worth keeping citing a 2003 fire it helped extinguish at a house on Paris Mountain.
“Had it not been for the Huey and the bambi bucket, there would have been millions of dollars in damage done to the houses in that area," Loftis said.
The Cessna 182, a single-engine four-seat plane, is mainly used for prisoner transport. It, too, is used sparingly.
In 2014, pilots logged 24 flight hours in the Cessna, which included four prisoner transports and one surveillance flight, according to the Aviation Unit's annual report. The prisoner transports included an in-state trip and travel to North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, according to Sheriff's Office records.
The other helicopter, a Bell OH-58 Kiowa, assists deputies in searches for fleeing criminals or missing people.
The department tries to keep at least $70,000 in the drug seizure account for helicopter maintenance, fuel and K-9 expenses, Cobb said. The Sheriff's Office spent $72,022.40 in aviation expenses in fiscal year 2015, accounting for nearly 38 percent of expenses that year, according to county records.
In 2014, the OH-58, the smaller of the two helicopters, logged about 120 flight hours. It recorded 129 calls for service to assist ground units, according to the annual report.
In 2014 the helicopter assisted in a vehicle pursuit and arrest of a triple murder suspect from Anderson County and his accomplice, according to a Sheriff’s Office report. In 2015, the Sheriff's Office used the helicopter to locate a teenager accused of killing his mother.
The OH-58 can cover the ground of about five patrol cars, said Sgt. Chris Hines, one of two pilots employed by the Sheriff's Office.
“We have used that (helicopter) so many times to recover lost persons, missing children, armed suspects,” Loftis said. “And when it comes to recovering a person or a small child that is missing, what kind of price do you put on a human life? You can’t.”
Narcotics Enforcement account
2011 FY revenue: $246,186.39
2011 FY expenses: $184,440.86
2012 FY revenue: $245,762.70
2012 FY expenses: $263,178.17
2013 FY revenue: $151,990.77
2013 FY expenses: $192,186.89
2014 FY revenue: $127,154.84
2014 FY expenses: $152,265.13
2015 FY revenue: $232,756.25
2015 FY expenses: $190,249.71
Source: Greenville County Sheriff's Office