Archive for the ‘Civil Asset Forfeiture’ Category

These cops tried to use civil asset forfeiture to steal money from a Christian charity

Friday, April 29th, 2016

Originally published at Rare

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.

Writes Ingraham:

[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.

As Wah so eloquently says:

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.

After his truck was stolen by law enforcement, this cop is working to reform civil asset forfeiture

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Originally published at Rare

Stephen Mills is a 24-year army veteran turned Apache, Oklahoma, Chief of Police. He also owns a ranch in nearby Grady County, where he employed a worker who was arrested for stealing oil field equipment while driving one of Mills’ work trucks. This happened in 2010, before Mills became an officer in the area.

As Mills explained in a video produced by The Heritage Foundation’s The Daily Signal, “I assumed [the police] were seizing [the truck] as evidence of the crime. I called them to ask when they were going to be done with it, and I could get my truck back. And what I was told was it wasn’t being taken as evidence. They were seizing it under civil asset forfeiture, because it was used in a crime.”

The Daily Signal’s Melissa Quinn summarized the problem well:

“Civil forfeiture is a tool that gives law enforcement the power to take people’s cash, cars, and property if they suspect it’s connected to criminal activity. The procedure was expanded in the 1980s and hailed as a tool law enforcement needed to fight the war on drugs.”

While the War on Drugs excuse is a standard explanation used by law enforcement to justify the practice of deeming property, not just people, as culpable in a crime, it’s clear the practice is abused far beyond that scope.

The ranch hand who was arrested in Mills’ vehicle wasn’t charged with drug trafficking. He was caught stealing property from an oil field – in a truck that didn’t belong to him! Yet the vehicle was seized, no questions asked. In many cases, property is stolen by cops under this standard, even when no crimes were committed by the owners.

State Senator Kyle Loveless, an Oklahoma Republican who introduced a bill to reform this practice, explained to The Daily Signal that, “Every way across the board in different agencies, city, county, statewide agencies, the system is fraught with abuse.”

Added Loveless, “Innocent people’s stuff is being taken. The system is so perverted that it is like climbing Mount Everest to get your stuff back.” As Loveless concluded, “[I]t comes back to should the government be able to take someone’s stuff and keep it without charging them or proving it, and I say no.”

While civil asset forfeiture remains a major issue, there’s more bipartisan awareness about its problematic nature now than ever before. State legislatures across the country are working to tamp down on this practice.

Unfortunately, many police unions and prosecutors continue to support civil asset forfeiture, largely because, as State Senator Loveless explained, they use the property seized to make up for budget shortfalls. But reform is possible if there’s enough public outcry about this unconstitutional practice.

Ultimately, Mills is right when he says, “The Constitution protects our personal property. When the government uses civil asset forfeiture laws to go in and deprive a person of their property, whether they’re taking it from drugs or not, they’re circumventing the due process that is written into our Constitution.”