An Open Letter to the DA Who Thinks I Must Be in ISIS Because I Carry Around Cash

Dear Scott Rowland,

I had $10K, little more, in the car when I heard you on All Things Considered. You were defending civil asset forfeiture. This is a practice cops engage in and which you endorse.

A driver with funds in his Hyundai pays real attention when law enforcement professionals explain on national radio why cops should continue taking away property from people during routine traffic stops where those people aren't charged with a crime. Your defense, I had to notice, backfired. You didn't defend forfeiture at all. I realize you thought you did, you wanted to. But your comments provided a rich illustration of why forfeiture must be abolished.

Counselor, this is forfeiture in brief: Cop finds money. Cop takes money.

The end.

Cop has only to say, "I think this money is crime-related." He proves nothing. Brings no charges. Gets no warrant. Unlike criminal forfeiture  --  which takes place when someone's convicted of actual crime  --  the charges in civil forfeiture are formally brought against the property itself, not against its (former) owner. Because property has no rights, it has no presumption of innocence. Violated owners can recover their possessions only after proving that the items are not crime-related. In this version of justice, exoneration means proving a negative. So the burden is on the accused.

This detail alone makes forfeiture a perversion in a free land. I refer you to the Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendments. But the thing gets kinkier.

Thanks to John Oliver, the Washington Post, and the Institute for Justice, many of us know by now where the proceeds of forfeiture go: directly into the discretionary budgets of the police agencies that seize the assets and of their buddies, the district attorneys. The process is: find it and keep it. Cops are incentivized to steal.

In the story I listened to, Counselor, reporter Kate Greer noted that an Oklahoma D.A. had used forfeiture proceeds to pay off his own student loans. I heard this on the radio and scoffed. What a joke. And then you came on.

You said that anyone in your business "knows" (knows, you said) that large amounts of money are "a key indicator of illegal activity." My scoffing grew hoarse at this point. I thought of the locked car safe bolted to the floor below my seat.

This was two days ago -- Sunday. I was driving to meet my kid and her mama for dinner with friends at their house. Cops should seize money when they find it (you said) because the alternative is to "send it on back to the cartel. Or send it on back to al Qaeda or ISIS."

You were speaking specifically of the Sooner State  --  where you're First Assistant D.A. in the state's most populous county  --  so you were claiming, in effect, that the Islamic State is among the likeliest sources of funds in a random driver's car in Oklahoma.

This is not an argument for civil asset forfeiture. You made an argument for due process, without knowing it.

Government officials as recklessly ignorant as yourself, as devoid of any aptitude for probabilistic reasoning  --  officials capable of arguing that large cash holdings, in a state with 124 casinos (Oklahoma has the second largest tribal gambling market in the country), can correctly be inferred to come from ISIS  --  are the reason due process is needed. You're not a cop but you work with cops and you the share the cop mentality. The mentality of certainty, of knowing. If cop certainty could be relied upon, the courts would be superfluous.

At dinner, the kids played  --  meaning my daughter bit at our friends' son's head and was pulled away shrieking. These were white-looking kids in a posh-looking house. When her tears had gone and the toddlers were together again on the couch, leaping and throwing pillows, there was an interval of peace and reflection, a reflexive instant where I observed myself and my family in that environment and noticed my awareness of the loveliness there. This vanished, Counselor, as I thought of you -- and I suddenly recalled that I'd lied to my daughter a few days before.

We'd been driving. Passed a police vehicle. She likes anything with flashers or a siren attached. And I'd told her that the police help people  --  that this was their job  --  and if she ever got lost she should flag down a cop. But I realized in the brightness of our friends' living room that if my child were a dark-looking boy instead of a white-looking girl, such a speech would be impossible. And irresponsible. Cops, I would tell him, help some people; they steal from others; you they might kill.

We live in an era out of all patience with deferring to the certainties of cops. Your assertion of the likely connection between cash in Oklahoma and such groups as the Islamic State is just another reason we, the people, must remain skeptical of you and your kind.

As to what I was doing with a couple-few straps in my car, that's a private matter, Counselor. I'll only add that anyone in my business knows that large amounts of money are a key indicator of diligence, competence, hard work, good fortune, success.

Yours  --  as sincerely as it gets.

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