Oklahoma has permissive civil asset forfeiture policies, which allow law enforcement officers to confiscate cash and property if they believe that property may be connected to criminal activity. This is touted as a way to interrupt drug trafficking and to prevent drug dealers from using those illegal funds while a court case may be pending.
There is a big problem with this, though. Law enforcement has never been intended to serve as judge and jury, which is exactly what these civil asset forfeiture policies allow them to do. In many cases, cash and property are seized before a person is convicted of a crime, and typically, before that person is charged with any crime.
We have seen in this state again and again when a person is pulled over with a large sum of cash, that money is assumed to be drug money and confiscated by law enforcement. During "Operation Desert Snow," a company providing highway interdiction training for Oklahoma state troopers was actually allowing civilian trainers to stop vehicles and seize cash. In one case, civilian trainers working with state troopers seized nearly $8,000 in cash and a rifle from a man, after saying they detected "marijuana residue" in the vehicle. The man was never arrested for any crime, yet law enforcement took the cash, which he says was a gift from his father, and the gun which was an impulse purchase and was never assembled.
Of course, the most notable case came when sheriff's deputies in Muskogee, Oklahoma, seized more than $50,000 in cash as "drug money" during a traffic stop. There was no evidence that the cash was involved in the drug trade in any way, yet the deputies were able to seize the money. As it turned out, the driver of the vehicle was telling the truth when he said the cash was door receipts and t-shirt sales profits from the Christian rock band he managed. The money was eventually returned to the band, but not until the band manager went to court and fought to get it back.
And to make matters worse, there seems to be little oversight as to what is done with the seized assets. A state audit shows that one Oklahoma district attorney used $5,000 of civil asset forfeiture funds to pay off a student loan.
This legislative session, Oklahoma is one of 15 states calling for reform of civil asset forfeiture policies. Sen. Kyle Loveless has sponsored a bill, SB 585, that would require a person to be convicted at jury trial of a related crime before the assets could be seized. It would also raise the burden of proof for asset seizure from "preponderance of evidence" to "clear and convincing evidence."
However, if the bill fails, it would not be the first time. Oklahoma has twice seen such measures proposed and rejected. Loveless blames "aggressive pushback" from law enforcement agencies who continue to insist that civil asset forfeiture is a necessary tool for fighting against drug trafficking.
Still, with abuses of civil asset forfeiture coming to light, it seems more and more Oklahomans favor reform of these laws.