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Is it legal for a North Carolina police officer to sieze cash in a traffic stop?

It's been nearly two years since a North Carolina business owner was first pulled over by a state police officer who seized several thousands of dollars in cash that the man had in his possession. A subsequent traffic stop resulted in several more thousands of dollars in business-related proceeds being seized for a total loss of $130,000. Despite the fact that the man was never charged with any crime, the police officer was able to seize the assets under a program known as equitable sharing.

North Carolina's participation in the equitable sharing program allows state and local law enforcement agencies to seize and retain assets that officers suspect may be connected to criminal activity. For example, in cases where a police officer suspects cash seized in a traffic stop is drug-related, the Drug Enforcement Administration may adopt the case. Once seized assets are tied to a federal case, they might not be returned. This is true even in cases where the individual from whom assets were seized is never charged with any crime.

The seizure and forfeiture of assets suspected to be tied to criminal activity was sanctioned in 1984 with the passage of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. Today, the U.S. Department of Justice widely regards the asset forfeiture program as "one of the most powerful tools for targeting criminals - including drug dealers and white collar criminals."

In an effort to encourage cooperation by state and local law enforcement agencies in crime-fighting efforts, agencies may choose to participate in the equitable sharing program which allows for the retention and use of "equitably shared funds". In other words, when employees of state and local law enforcement agencies seize assets that are subsequently linked to possible criminal activity, the agencies are allowed to keep and spend the money that may or may not be tied to illegal activities.

As of June 30, 2014, the North Carolina State Highway Patrol reported seizing more than $1.3 million in assets via the equitable sharing program, an amount that includes the $98,699 which the North Carolina business owner whose assets were seized in two traffic stops has yet to get back.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice, "Guide to Equitable Sharing for State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies," 2015, "Crime-fighting tool or legal robbery? NC law agencies rely on controversial program," Cullen Browder, Jan. 30, 2015

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