HENDERSON — A grand jury indicted a Vance County Sheriff’s Office narcotics deputy on charges of extortion and obstruction of justice in connection with an alleged attempt to seize two automobiles for the department from people in trouble with the law.

Mitch Taybron Pittman, who lives in Tarboro, went free on Nov. 5 on a $10,000 unsecured bond. He is due back in court on Dec. 2.

The grand jury handed up its indictments Oct. 7, after hearing testimony from a State Bureau of Investigation agent who’s been probing the matter at the behest of District Attorney Mike Waters. The charges accuse Pittman of pressuring people to give up a 2007 Cadillac STS and a 2007 Infiniti G35, and of “circumventing [the] judicial process proscribed for civil asset forfeiture.”

Waters wouldn’t say anything Friday about the case. “I don’t have any comment at this time, it’s a pending investigation,” he said.

A motion the prosecutor filed Thursday indicated that the investigation is in fact ongoing. It also indicated that authorities want to question County Attorney Jonathan Care about what happened and about legal documents he allegedly prepared for Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Steve Staton.

To date, Care has invoked attorney-client privilege, telling SBI Special Agent W.D. Marsh that he “could not participate in an interview” because his communications with Staton were confidential, the motion from Waters said.

Waters is asking a judge to review the confidentiality claim, in the interests of potentially finding evidence pointing to Pittman’s guilt or innocence.

A Nov. 5 email exchange, appended to the motion, between Waters, Care, Marsh and Sheriff Curtis Brame indicated that the sheriff is receiving advice from Ronnie Mitchell, legal counsel for the Fayetteville-based Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.

Care said he would “abide by what my client, Sheriff Brame, and his attorney are willing to consent to.” He was responding to a message from Waters that concluded by saying Brame was “anxious for his outside investigator to complete the internal investigation,” and that the confidentiality claim was “holding up the remaining interviews necessary to conclude this matter.”

Brame issued a statement on Friday that said he “is conducting an internal investigation by an outside entity to ensure that the integrity of the agency is being met.” Its findings “will be provided to the district attorney.”

Reached by phone, the sheriff said he’s “not ready to discuss more” while he awaits the conclusion of the “background investigation.”

Waters’ motion indicated that the chain of events that led to Pittman’s indictment began in April, when a local man traveled to Broadnax, Virginia, to buy the 2007 Cadillac. It said the man’s aunt contributed two-thirds of the cash-purchase price, and the aunt’s name went on the car’s bill of sale and insurance in violation of Virginia law.

The man was driving the car on April 27 when Brame saw “what he believed to be a potential hand-to-hand drug transaction” conducted from it. The sheriff turned on his own car’s blue lights, and a short car chase ensued that left the car impounded and the man facing a felony charge of fleeing to elude arrest.

Staton, a former SBI agent who’s also “a task force officer” with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, questioned the aunt the same day, the motion said. Homeland Security Investigations is a branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

On April 28, Pittman and another deputy went to the aunt’s place of work and presented her with a Homeland Security Investigations “property abandonment form.” She signed, after Pittman told her she would otherwise face going to state prison and have to fight for the car in federal court, the motion alleged.

North Carolina law on civil asset forfeiture allows it only after a person accused of a crime has been tried and convicted. Federal law, however, allows forfeiture proceedings even in the absence of a conviction.

State forfeiture proceedings in general are supposed to occur at the request of district attorneys or the N.C. attorney general. Forfeiture proceeds are supposed to go to local school districts.

A Homeland Security Investigation agent told Staton the Cadillac was “a no go,” the motion alleged. But Staton checked with Brame, and heard back that “if the county attorney is good with it, run with it,” according to the motion.

The Virginia auto dealer, who was still owed $320 for the Cadillac, faxed the sheriff’s office a document showing the balance due. Pittman and another deputy went to Broadnax to speak to the dealer, and told him he’d have to pay $1,100 in towing and storage to recover the car, and that if he “does not want to be reported to licensing and law enforcement authorities” in Virginia “he will give up his property interest” in the Cadillac.

Pittman also “implie[d] that he is with Homeland Security Investigations” and that “the vehicle is subject to the federal asset forfeiture program,” the motion claimed.

The dealer eventually drew up a new bill of sale showing a balance of $320, which was never paid. The car was titled in late May to the Vance County Sheriff’s Office “without any judicial oversight or due process” on behalf of the original buyer, his aunt, the Virginia dealership or the Vance County Schools, the motion said.

No drugs were found in the Cadillac or on the man driving it, the motion said.

The second incident began on June 23 when a 20-year-old man was arrested on charges of selling heroin. Authorities seized his car, a semi-automatic rifle and about $2,000 in cash.

The man and his mother went to the Sheriff’s Office on June 24 and met with Pittman, who told them he’d get the charges dismissed if the 20-year-old waived his rights to the car, the rifle and the cash. The mother asked what would happen if they didn’t agree, and Pittman allegedly told them, “We will nail his [expletive] to the wall.”

The 20-year-old came back on June 29 to sign over title to the Infiniti, but Staton met him outside and told him something had come up and they’d need to reschedule.

The motion did not specify what had come up. The next event it listed was a move by Marsh “on or after July 15” to contact Care and ask to “interview him relative to these events and documents that he allegedly prepared on behalf of Chief Deputy Steve Staton.”

None of the civilians linked to ownership of the car has a North Carolina criminal record that shows up in the N.C. Department of Public Safety’s online database of offenders.

Civil asset forfeiture is controversial, with groups from both ends of the political spectrum seeing many of the practices associated with it as violations of civil liberties.

One such group, the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation, published commentaries in 2017 that argued federal forfeiture law allows local law enforcement in North Carolina to get around the state’s restrictions on the practice. The group is bankrolled in large part by the John William Pope Foundation, the family foundation of the owners of Henderson-based Variety Wholesalers.

Asset forfeiture “tends to pervert the proper relationship between the police and the public by turning the former into predators and the latter into prey,” said one of the commentaries, authored by Locke Foundation Director of Legal Studies Jon Guze. “Allowing law enforcement agencies to self-fund their operations by taking property directly from the citizens creates perverse incentives and encourages abuse.”

Contact Ray Gronberg at rgronberg@hendersondispatch.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.

Contact Ray Gronberg at rgronberg@hendersondispatch.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.