HENDERSON — Vance County Sheriff Curtis Brame says the three deputies facing criminal charges that accuse them of conspiring to mount an end run around North Carolina’s asset-forfeiture laws are suspended pending the resolution of their charges.
But the sheriff also said that while an internal investigation found “violation of office policy and [a] lack of training,” he also believes that “protocol was followed” and “at this time, I do not have any evidence that would warrant the charges brought against them.”
Brame’s comments, issued via an emailed written statement, responded to the booking the day before of his second-in-command, Maj. Steve Staton, and narcotics deputies Mitch Pittman and Purav Patel.
Each faces eight charges in connection with efforts, eventually successful, by the sheriff’s office in the spring of 2020 to acquire a 2007 Cadillac STS that Brame had chased after seeing someone in it conduct what he took as a hand-to-hand drug transaction.
Pittman also faces three additional charges that date from the initial indictment in the case last fall. The N.C. State Bureau of Investigation and a unit in the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles have been probing the matter at the behest of local prosecutors.
Various court filings have indicated that the sheriff’s office impounded the car and within a day of the brief chase began its efforts to subject the car to forfeiture.
Initially, it tried to work through U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, which for operating under federal law has more latitude than state and local law enforcement to launch forfeiture proceedings.
Staton, a former SBI agent, spearheaded that inquiry and eventually heard back that for federal officials, a forfeiture bid was a “no-go” because of Homeland Security Investigations’ in-house guidelines.
The sheriff’s office then tried going it alone. Pittman and Patel visited a Virginia car dealer who held a lien on the Cadillac, and allegedly there was pressure on the dealer to surrender his interest in the vehicle.
Staton and the deputies also talked to the car’s buyer, a local woman. Once again, there are allegations that she was pressured to surrender title to it.
In theory, asset forfeiture exists to strip criminals of their ill-gotten gains. North Carolina law forfeiture law generally demands court supervision of the process, and restricts when it can occur.
One statute, for example, specifically authorizes the forfeiture of vehicles involved in cases where a driver committed a felony by speeding to elude arrest. But it says it’s up to a judge to allow that, either during the driver’s post-conviction sentencing hearing, at a separate post-conviction hearing, or, if the driver was a no-show in court, at a hearing held at least 60 days after the no-show.
And by law in North Carolina, forfeiture proceeds have to go to the local school system.
Contact Ray Gronberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 252-436-2850.