Beginning early this year, there was the announcement of a bill in the legislature that would place some restrictions on the seemingly common practice of law enforcement -after a traffic stop for an apparent legitimate minor infraction, such as burned-out tail light – to search the vehicle and, if a more than considered normal amount of cash was found, to confiscate it on the spot. The excuse was that the officer or officers suspected that it was illegally obtained by drug or other illegal activities. It seems that even if no charges were filed and the victim released, it would become necessary for same to file a court case to reclaim their rightful property.
The earliest case in recent history was an individual driving south with, if memory serves correctly, $54,000 in cash. The driver maintained that he was going to Texas to purchase a trailer tractor truck and cash was required. The arresting officer, again if memory serves correctly, a county deputy claimed it to be drug money and promptly confiscated it, without ever arresting the victim. In this case, it took months of legal effort to force the return of the improperly taken money, all at great cost of lawyers and court fees. As a result, the driver was out not only his time but a good portion of his money. Due to memory failure, the county involved is not stated.
Because of that limited publicity, a bill was filed in the Legislature that would prohibit the keeping such assets unless criminal charges were filed and the return of same if the defendant was able to succeed in defense. This seems to me to be quite logical and full of common sense. It also seems that the existing rules of conduct leave open the possibility of misconduct in order to bring in more money to the local government. Much like the (now reduced) speed traps that have fattened the town and county coffers so much in the past.
So far, the fate of that bill seems to be a well-kept secret. A rumor has it that the huge outcry of objection from sheriffs, prosecutors and local judges caused the chairman of the committee to which it was assigned to simply fail to bring it up for discussion.
Meanwhile, another bill was able to make it through the legislative process that may very well offer some help in such matters. According to a story in the Tulsa daily paper, Governor Mary Fallin signed into law Senate Bill 1113, which allows judges “to award attorney fees to people whose assets were unjustly seized by law enforcement. Since the bill did not contain an emergency clause, it will become effective on November 1.
Unfortunately, recovery under this law will become a burden on the tax-paying residents of the particular jurisdiction. In my opinion, the individual or individuals involved in this miscarriage of justice should be held personally accountable, as would be the case in private business.
Another such case, which may have assisted in getting SB 1113 through the process, occurred this year in Muskogee County. In this case the sheriff’s office seized $53,000 in cash from Eh Wah of Dallas. Mr. Wah is tour manager for a Burmese Christian rock band which is raising money for a Thai orphanage and a nonprofit Christian school in Myanmar. He is a naturalized U.S. citizen. After the uproar about this incident, the money was returned, but it has not been disclosed how much the whole incident has cost him.
Further, the citizens of Muskogee may very well be out substantially more, since another story on the same day bore the headline: “ACLU probing asset forfeiture case.” Naturally, the ACLU wants to get into the pockets of the citizens of Muskogee County for themselves to use in filing suits against governments and businesses for proclaimed abuses against “minorities.” If the perpetrators were personally liable, they might think twice before acting so fast.