NICHOLS, S.C. — They came into Nichols from all over.
Two roommates made the drive from Kings Mountain, North Carolina. One man drove from Michigan; another was passing through from New York to perhaps somewhere more exciting.
It was late spring in 2014, and the two highways that bisect this tiny rural village thronged with beach traffic. Most of the motorists were from out of state, bound for nearby Myrtle Beach until they were pulled over.
In case after case, their money was confiscated because an officer said the cash was found near drugs. Yet few motorists ever were arrested.
They were caught in one of the most aggressive civil forfeiture operations in the state. Their stories were among the dozens of similar tales from this sleepy stretch of South Carolina with a police force that seized and kept nearly $50,000 from unsuspecting motorists over a two-year period — the equivalent of $135 for every person living in Nichols.
That’s six times more per resident than any other police department in the state. The next highest, the Yemassee Police Department, serves a jurisdiction about three times the size of Nichols, and seized $21 per capita.
We found the story of Nichols by analyzing data gathered in a two-year examination of forfeiture cases made by every law enforcement agency in the state from 2014-2016.
Of the 10 police departments that seized the most money per capita, six served jurisdictions of 4,000 people or less. With a population of 358, Nichols stood out for the profit its police department made.
Police officials from that era have said their highway effort in Nichols was meant to reduce crime. Other than that, they have declined to explain the program.
The record of active civil forfeiture there is evidence trapped in amber because Hurricane Matthew damaged and deeply changed Nichols toward the end of our study period data. This place is no longer the same as it was in 2014 and 2015 — and its policing, like everything else in Nichols, has been affected.
But the model from which it reaped rewards could be replicated today legally by any small town in South Carolina.
Put differently, any tiny place with highway traffic like Nichols could mine for gold.
Town in decline
Nichols, like many of the other small towns dotting South Carolina’s Pee Dee region, has been in decline for a long time. The town’s population dropped from 525 in the 1990 census to 358 a generation later. Even more may flee after Hurricane Florence’s floodwaters swept through the town again last autumn.
“We used to have a thriving little town,” said Jimmy Little, the former mayor. An auto mechanic by trade, he and his wife, Bonnie, have lived in Nichols for 50 years. She's a retired cafeteria worker.
They remember the little farming community in its heyday, when the tobacco exchanges were full and cotton and soybeans were widely planted. Once, Nichols had a drive-in theater, and its own elementary and high schools. There was a doctor’s office and a dentist, too. “It was a very convenient place to live,” Little said.
Jimmy and Bonnie were newlyweds when they bought their first home together — a house near the main town thoroughfare that they still live in today. They raised three sons, who later found good jobs at the public golf course.
But when the textile plants closed, business dried up. Retailers, seeking the more lucrative communities in Florence and Myrtle Beach, abandoned the region. Residents like the Littles hung on as Nichols spiraled downward.
By the time the town’s police department began seizing money during traffic stops in 2014, Nichols’ business district had dwindled to a grocery store, a pharmacy, a propane company, a beauty shop and an accounting firm. A handful of garages, the Sunny Mart and a Dollar General also remained, eking a living from traffic on U.S. 76 and State 9.
Flooding damage from Hurricane Matthew ended all that, said Geraldine Ford, a retired teacher who owns Paul’s Fish Market, the only restaurant left. The October 2016 storm dumped more than a foot of rain on the area, flushing the Lumber and Little Pee Dee rivers from their banks.
Nichols, at the center of the convergence, turned into a funnel for all that stormwater.
The level rose faster than Ford thought possible. When the flood came, “this place looked like a river — fish floating down the middle of the road,” Ford said.
She talked about Hurricane Matthew in April 2018 from the counter of her restaurant. Behind her, a dry erase board listed the day’s specials: smoked neck bone and rice, field peas, butter beans.
Most of the town’s 261 homes were destroyed or severely damaged in 2016. Its six churches and all 22 businesses, including Ford’s, were flooded.
Ford was lucky — the fish market sits atop a hill, so the mildew wasn’t as bad as it was in most places. By the time she reopened, most of her customers had gone. Their houses were ruined, and they didn’t have the money to fix them.
Seizing small amounts
Part of Nichols’ legacy might be the law enforcement example it was setting before the flood came.
The department, with three officers and a police chief, said it was keeping residents safer by discouraging drug activity through forfeiture and road stops. The overwhelming result for the town was a stream of cash that bolstered operating budgets for cops even as it consumed police time.
But what kind of citizens and drugs were targeted?
Details in court records are scant. The Nichols cases listed only names, dates and seizure amount, and many of the people police stopped didn’t have criminal records that we could find.
Brandon Hamer was one of them. Hamer lost nearly all his cash when a Nichols officer pulled over his friend in March 2014. The police report said Hamer was cited for simple possession of marijuana and “voluntarily forfeited $542.”
The officer gave Hamer back $42 for reasons not specified in the report.
That same week, Joseph Burris lost $242 when he signed his cash over to police “because of its connection to the purchase of marijuana.” He, too, was cited for simple possession and driving left of center, according to the officer’s report, though no record of the charges can be found in public records.
In all, Nichols’ tiny police force made 50 seizures between 2014 and 2015, confiscating anywhere from $80 to $6,000 at a time. In all but three of those 50 cases, owners signed waivers agreeing to forfeit their money to the police department.
In doing so, they also gave up the right to fight the seizure in court to get all or even some of their cash back. So why would they consent?
Maybe the answer is in the hassle for an out-of-towner. Ed Clements, the 12th Circuit solicitor, said citizens who signed consent agreements in Nichols were told they wouldn't have to "come back and deal with it."
Agencies in small towns across the country have paid for vehicles and equipment using the same methods. Nichols is no different, though it lacks the interstate highways often cited by authorities as the preferred method of transport for drug traffickers.
Clements said Nichols is unique in that it sits at the juncture of two highways on the way to a tourist destination. “It’s a tiny little place with a lot of traffic going through it to the beach.”
The numbers would be unusual in other towns, but here, “it’s not as odd as you might think,” Clements said. “They’re going to the beach, and they’re going to party.”
That fits in with Clement’s description of who police were seizing money from. Most of the cases, he said, involved “normal pot smokers who … got caught at a traffic stop with drugs in their car.”
Court records from Nichols show only three people were ever arrested and convicted of a crime. Their cash was all seized by one officer: Sgt. Keith Massey.
In March 2015, Massey seized $1,749 from David Jones after finding some loose marijuana in an ashtray, along with the remnants of four blunts, a forfeiture filing said. The combined weight of the marijuana was 0.70 grams, which would easily fit inside a soda bottlecap. Court records show no charges for Jones, who was still fighting the claims in court three years later.
A month later, Massey seized $1,984 from Joshua Grant, who was stopped for speeding. Massey said he smelled marijuana, which gave him probable cause to search Grant’s vehicle. A small amount of drugs, 2.7 grams, was found in the car. Grant refused to sign over his money and was charged with minor possession of marijuana.
Massey and the town’s former police chief, Mark Lewis, didn’t return messages seeking comment for this story.
Lewis left the department in 2018. Massey left at the end of 2015 to work for the Horry County Police Department, according to his employment records at the Criminal Justice Academy.
Before leaving his post, Massey was recognized at the annual National Interdiction Training Conference for the largest seizure of stolen credit cards made that year.
The seizure was made during a routine traffic stop, Massey said in an interview with The Morning News in Florence. As in his other cases, Massey said he smelled narcotics, which led to a vehicle search. Instead of cash, he found 173 cloned credit cards worth more than $500,000. The news article didn’t name the driver or say whether any drugs were found.
Lewis told the newspaper he was thankful to have the resources needed to keep residents safe from drug trafficking.
“Yes, we stop people from speeding, but we’re not a speed trap,” he said then. “We’re a criminal enforcement unit, and our outlook is to try to reduce the amount of crime that … passes through our city.”
After the floods came and Massey left, the town’s small police force turned its attention away from targeted traffic stops to rebuilding efforts.
— Nathaniel Cary contributed reporting for this article.
Have you lost property through civil forfeiture? Or do you have information about the practice we should know? We'd like to hear about it. Contact our reporters at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MORE: Most civil forfeiture cases involve the larger police departments, which have more resources to pour into it. Some small towns have found a workaround, relying on partnerships with federal agencies, which handle the cases but share forfeiture revenues with locals. Dillon is one of those towns. A team was created to roam Interstate 95 in search of forfeiture cases. Officers stopped drivers and took money but never wrote a ticket.