Violations of forest laws are serious business
The Forestry Commission prosecuted its first forest fire case in 1929. From then until the 1990s, the agency’s law enforcement officers focused almost entirely on forest fire violations. These cases ranged from simple violations of safe burning laws to felony-level woods arsons.
In the early 1990s, however, the agency began investigating timber transaction crime, primarily in response to public demand. Specially trained Forestry Commission agents now investigate hundreds of timber thefts and fraudulent timber deals every year.
All Forestry Commission officers are trained and certified by the SC Criminal Justice Academy. After graduation, officers receive additional training on forestry law, wildland fire behavior, forest fire investigation and incident management. Forestry Commission officers have statewide jurisdiction and full power of arrest; they may issue citations (tickets) for misdemeanor offenses. For more serious crimes, officers obtain warrants and make physical arrests. Officers are armed with Glock .40 pistols, Tasers and “pepper spray;” every officer is required to qualify with the .40-caliber semi-automatic weapon twice each year.
Forest fire law enforcement
Law enforcement is an important part of forest fire prevention, and the Forestry Commission assumes the primary responsibility for statewide forest fire law enforcement.
The South Carolina Forestry Commission is committed to protecting the Palmetto State’s public and private forest resources, crimes against which cost landowners millions of dollars each year.
In Fiscal Year 2019-20 alone, SCFC law enforcement officers conducted 381 fire and 122 timber theft/fraud investigations, wrote 74 fire citations, made four arrests for woods arson and collected more than $11,000 in fines.
Timber Transaction Crime
The Forestry Commission is the primary law enforcement agency investigating timber transaction crime in South Carolina. Timber transaction crime includes outright theft of forest products, as well as fraud. Fraud in this context includes Obtaining Property Under False Pretenses, Breach of Trust with Fraudulent Intent , Swindling and Exploitation of a Vulnerable Adult. Frequently associated crimes include Trespassing, Malicious Injury to Real Property and Conspiracy.
Two laws pertaining to timber transactions were passed in 2002. One requires timber buyers to provide the landowner with accurate mill receipts for wood purchased on a pay-as-cut basis. The other allows law enforcement to confiscate any tools or equipment used in commission of certain timber transaction crimes. In 2004, another law was passed requiring timber buyers to pay landowners within 45 days for timber purchased on a pay-as-cut basis.
Timber transaction crime is characterized as “white collar crime committed by criminals in work clothes.” According to Forestry Commission records, almost half of all timber transaction crime victims are 55 years old or older. Investigators think this may be because older people, regardless of sex or race, tend to be more trusting. About 40 % are African-American, perhaps because they are, southwide, much less likely to seek professional assistance when selling their timber. About 40% of all victims are female, with elderly widows frequently targeted. Many cases are never reported.
Investigations usually begin with a complaint from a landowner. Some complaints turn out to be civil matters: misunderstandings, slow payment, damaged property, failure to fulfill certain parts of a contract and accidental trespass. While the Forestry Commission does not handle civil cases, investigators are sometimes able to facilitate a satisfactory settlement by simply talking to the people involved.
How to report wildfires, arson, forest law violations or suspicious activity
- If you see a wildfire, call (800) 777-FIRE (3473).
- If you have information about a woods arson case, call (803) 896-8838.
- To report a suspected case of forest law violation of any kind, please contact your local Forestry Commission law enforcement officer or contact SCFC Law Enforcement Chief Tommy Mills at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 896-8818.
Statutes relating to timber transaction crimes
- 16-11-520 Malicious injury to real property. Felony if damage is over $1000. Penalty for felony level: up to 10 years and fine at discretion of court.
- 16-11-580 Taking timber, pine straw, or other forest products w/o permission. Misdemeanor if value is less than $1000; fines up to $500. Felony if value is more than $1000; penalty is fine at discretion of court or up to 10 years in prison.16-11-610 Trespassing. Misdemeanor; penalty is fine up to $200 or prison for up to 30 days.
- 16-13-30-A Petit larceny; theft of values of $1000 or less. Misdemeanor; fine of to $500 and up to 30 days in prison.
- 16-13-30-B Grand larceny if valued at more than $1000. Felony. Penalty is fine at discretion of court, or up to 5 years if value is between $1000-$5000; up to 10 years if value is $5000 or more.
- 16-13-177 Law enforcement may confiscate equipment used in commission of timber theft/fraud valued at more than $5,000. Applies to violations of the following laws: 16-11-580; 16-13-30; 16-13-230; 16-13-240; and 48-23-265.
- 16-13-240 Obtaining property under false pretenses. Felony if over $1000. Penalty for felony level: up to $500 fine and up to 10 years if value is $5000 or more; fine in discretion of court and up to 5 years if value is $1000-$5000.
- 16-17-410 Conspiracy. Felony. Penalty is up to 5 years or up to $5000, but penalty cannot exceed penalty carried by the contemplated crime.
- 16-13-320 Swindling. Misdemeanor. Penalty is fine at discretion of court and restitution of double the amount involved. If payment is not immediately made, can be sentenced to up to 6 months.
- 43-35-85 Exploitation of a vulnerable adult. Felony. Penalty is up to $5000 and up to 5 years. Court may also order restitution.
- 48-23-97 Requires timber buyers to provide mill scale tickets for any timber purchased on a per unit, pay-as-cut basis. Violation is a misdemeanor; penalty is a fine of up to $1000 and up to 30 days in jail.
- 48-23-265 Requires timber buyer to pay for pay-as-cut timber within 45 days. Violation is misdemeanor if value is less than $5000.
To report a suspected case of forest law violation of any kind, please contact your local Forestry Commission law enforcement officer or contact SCFC Law Enforcement Chief Tommy Mills at email@example.com or (803) 896-8818.