A South Carolina man could lose close to $1 million cash for lacking a $1 license-plate bulb. According to a federal filing, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte, North Carolina, is seeking to seize $935,754 police reportedly found in the back seat of a vehicle during a traffic stop in May 2020.
Seneca Moore, 40, of Sumter, South Carolina, was reportedly driving his white Ford F-150 pickup on the main drag in Monroe when he was pulled over by police at approximately 10:15 p.m. in the parking lot of a Circle K on U.S. 74. The officers stopped him because he “was unable to tell if the license plate lights on the truck were working,” according to the press.
While one officer reportedly helped the Ford driver locate his license and registration, the other officer noticed two large cardboard boxes in the vehicle’s back seat. For reasons that are unclear, the officer performed an open-air drug search outside the vehicle using a narcotics dog. That led to an interior search, where they reportedly found almost $1 million in cash in the two cardboard boxes and a drawstring bag. No drugs were found, and the suspect wasn’t arrested or charged for any crime, but the money was confiscated by police.
Prosecutors now want to seize the cash using civil forfeiture. According to a filing by Assistant U.S. Attorney Seth Johnson, the cash was purportedly found in vacuum-sealed bags, which is a common tactic used by drug traffickers to mask the smell of illegal narcotics. The bags were also painted with red five-point stars, which is the alleged symbol of a drug-dealing organization known as the Nine Trey Gangsters, Johnson said.
When questioned about the money, the Ford driver reportedly said he owned a trucking company and some rental houses. However, Johnson claims the suspect’s tax returns over several years show his businesses either lost money or barely broke even.
On January 29, Johnson filed a claim to seize the cash, arguing that it is drug trafficking money with possible ties to an East Coast gang. A judge is scheduled to decide whether to approve the claim. Until now, several months later, the suspect has not been charged with any crimes tied to that traffic stop.
Johnson is seeking to seize the suspect’s money using civil asset forfeiture. It is a controversial process that gives prosecutors the power to seize assets suspected of being used in criminal activity, even if the property owner has not been charged.
North Carolina has strict forfeiture laws. The state prohibits civil forfeiture except in cases involving racketeering. In such cases, prosecutors are required to prove with evidence that property is connected to a crime before it can be seized. However, law enforcement agencies can circumvent state law through a federal program called equitable sharing. The program allows a state law enforcement agency to keep up to 80% of seized property if it refers the case to a federal agency for adoption.
Through equitable sharing, North Carolina’s law enforcement agencies were able to collect more than $17 million from the Department of Justice in 2018, and millions more from the Department of Treasury. Over the last two decades, they reportedly collected more than $293 million from equitable sharing. North Carolina ranks 45th in the country for its participation in the program, press sources indicate.
Critics of forfeiture argue North Carolina’s lawmakers should close the equitable sharing loophole or at least place suitable restrictions on its use. But until reform is passed, anyone could lose their property due to forfeiture, often without even being charged for a crime. In such cases, property owners must hire an experienced civil asset forfeiture attorney to get their property back.
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