Civil asset forfeiture, under which law enforcement can seize your property even if you aren’t convicted of a crime or arrested, is a nationwide problem. The state of Oklahoma, however, has a particularly well-documented knack for asset forfeiture abuse.
The latest example comes from the Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham. He brings us the story of Eh Wah, a Burmese refugee and American citizen who lives in Dallas, and the volunteer manager of the Klo & Kweh Music Team, a Christian rock band from his home country. Wah had been on a months-long tour with the group, which was raising money for a Christian college in Burma and an orphanage in Thailand.
That didn’t stop Muskogee County cops in Oklahoma from automatically assuming he was tied up in the drug trade—and using that as a justification to steal the Christian rock band’s charitable proceeds.
[S]heriff’s deputies in Muskogee County, Okla., pulled Eh Wah over for a broken tail light …The deputies started asking questions — a lot of them. And at some point, they brought out a drug-sniffing dog, which alerted on the car. That’s when they found the cash, according to the deputy’s affidavit. …
Eh Wah managed the band’s finances, holding on to the cash proceeds it raised from ticket and merchandise sales at concerts. By the time he was stopped in Oklahoma, the band had held concerts in 19 cities across the United States, raising money via tickets that sold for $10 to $20 each.
So the drug-sniffing dog barks. No drugs were actually found. Yet the cops interrogated Wah for several hours, threatened him with jail time, and took $53,249 allocated to Christian students and orphans in a highly vulnerable part of the world without justification. Then they let Wah go!
If this isn’t a gross abuse of the system—which is directly tied to the countless injustices baked into the War on Drugs generally—then what is?
Luckily, the Institute For Justice, a libertarian civil liberties law firm that represents clients like Wah for free, was on hand to help. This week, Muskogee County finally did the right thing, two months after the initial interrogation Wah faced.
“We are thrilled that District Attorney Loge has dropped the criminal case against Eh Wah and offered to return the money to the band, the church and the orphanage,” said IJ attorney Dan Alban. “The intense public scrutiny generated by this outrageous case led to justice being served.”
But as Alban points out, Wah was a highly sympathetic victim. There are many other people all over the country without his sparkling backstory who have had their basic civil liberties violated through civil asset forfeiture abuse.
The truth is, much work remains to be done. The Oklahoma state legislature recently rejected a bill to reform civil asset forfeiture. But the fact that such legislation even exists, and that reforms have been passed elsewhere, is a step in the right direction. Shining further light on these abuses must continue to be a priority.
This was an experience that no one should ever have to live through. It felt like something that would happen in a third-world country, but not in the United States. I’m just so happy that this is over and I hope that no one else will have to go through something like this.