Oklahoma Takes A Hard Look At What Police Seize — And How It's Spent
In Oklahoma, some people in charge of enforcing the law seem to be skirting it. State audits have found people in district attorney offices have used seized money and property to live rent-free and pay off student loans.
When state Sen. Kyle Loveless first heard about the audits, he'd already been thinking about amending the civil asset forfeiture laws — mainly because the state doesn't always follow the law.
" ... if we let people go without any checks and balances in place, bad things happen."
"We've seen in Oklahoma — through county commissioner scandals, Supreme Court justice scandals — if we let people go without any checks and balances in place, bad things happen," Loveless says.
The forfeiture laws are loose in Oklahoma. Law enforcement can seize property or money they believe was used in a crime — even if they don't charge anyone.
Forfeited funds that aren't contested stay with the seizing agency or local prosecutors. They're supposed to be used for "law enforcement purposes," but Sen. Loveless says paying off student loans with this money seems like a stretch.
"When asked about it, law enforcement said, 'Well, he's a DA and he prosecutes bad guys, so therefore it's law enforcement,' " he says. "Wait a minute. I'm sorry, but I just don't believe that that passes the smell test."
Oklahoma County's First Assistant District Attorney Scott Rowland insists abuses are uncommon. His agency hasn't had any trouble with civil forfeiture audits, and he thinks there's more to the story than the findings reveal.
"Critics want to make it sound like law enforcement and prosecutors have got dollar signs in their eyes, that they are out here rampantly letting money and asset control their law enforcement decisions or their prosecution decisions," Rowland says. "That's just not the case."
Sen. Loveless wants to require criminal charges after any asset forfeiture — something the U.S. Department of Justice did earlier this year.
But Rowland argues many cartels no longer travel with drugs and money together, so you can't always prove a driver is guilty of a crime.
What would you have the police do? Pack it back up in the car in the hidden compartment and send it on back to the cartel?
"You have this large amount of money, which anyone in my business knows is a key indicator of illegal activity, and then you have them saying they don't know anything about it, but it's not theirs," he says. "What would you have the police do? Pack it back up in the car in the hidden compartment and send it on back to the cartel? Or send it on back to al-Qaida or ISIS?"
Brady Henderson with the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma says most of the larger jurisdictions like Oklahoma County probably follow the law just fine, but it's the bigger picture that's the problem. He says the law is set up to fail.
"One of the things about having these laws right now where forfeiture and seizure are so unregulated, unreported, there's so little control by the public, is that's a system that allows and encourages abuse and corruption, by its very definition," Henderson says.
There are cases where forfeiture is used correctly, Henderson says, but overlooking injustices against innocent people is a problem, too.
"One of the challenges in reform is: How do you make sure you're still protecting law enforcement's ability to do that when they need to and when it's legitimate?" he says. "But how do you stamp out the abuse of that process too?"
And that's exactly what Loveless says he's trying to do.
"We need to give law enforcement every tool available to go after the drug cartels," Loveless says. "I just think that it needs to be done in an open and above process."
And that's something that hasn't been done in all the law enforcement offices across the state.
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