An Oklahoma sheriff and his deputy were arrested last week on charges of bribery and extortion stemming from a traffic stop in which the two men used a controversial law enforcement tool known as civil asset forfeiture to seize cash from a motorist.
Wagoner County Sheriff Bob Colbert and Deputy Jeffrey Gragg maintain they did everything by the book in December 2014, when they took $10,000 in cash -- drug proceeds, they claimed -- from a vehicle following a stop. But a grand jury disagreed, and on Thursday returned an indictment alleging that Colbert and Gregg had conspired to get the driver and his passenger to hand over the cash in exchange for not pursuing drug charges.
Colbert and Gragg were booked into jail on Thursday and immediately released on bond. The panel has also recommended Colbert be removed from office.
The case comes as Oklahoma lawmakers and law enforcement groups spar over the practice of civil asset forfeiture, which allows police to seize and permanently confiscate cash and property, such as houses, vehicles and jewelry, from civilians. While officers base these seizures on allegations that the property is connected to criminal activity, police don't have to charge the owner with a crime, much less obtain a conviction. In many cases, police strip people of their property without even having to prove the supposed connection to criminal activity.
Critics of civil asset forfeiture say it has created a system of policing for profit, in which law enforcement agencies prioritize seizing property that can financially benefit their department over ensuring public safety through a neutral administration of the law. Weak protections for property owners further enable abuse and allow police to take property without due process, advocates for reform say. And they argue that all of this can make civil forfeiture look a lot like legalized extortion and bribery.
The actions that Colbert and Gragg allegedly engaged in, however, were not legal.
“This shows the very fine line that there is between extortion and civil forfeiture.”
In a statement, Oklahoma Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt said driver Torell Wallace and his 17-year-old passenger had initially claimed an ownership interest in the cash, meaning they were prepared to challenge the seizure.
Gragg then arrested the men for "possession of drug proceeds" and took them to jail for processing. Wallace told Gragg he was on parole and asked what he could do to stay out of jail, and Gragg responded that the only way he was "going to go home that day was to disclaim his ownership in the $10,000,” according to a copy of the indictment obtained by The Oklahoman.
"Colbert and Gragg accepted a bribe from Wallace and the passenger when Wallace disclaimed any interest in the cash," Pruitt said. "They were then released and their records were deleted. The cash was placed in a Sheriff’s Drug Forfeiture account with the Wagoner County Treasurer’s Office."
Colbert's lawyer, Michon Hughes, said the traffic stop involved a "routine drug interdiction" and a lawful seizure. She also focused on the fact that the cash went into a forfeiture fund, not into somebody's pocket.
"The funds are not missing and are accounted for," she said. "The Sheriff’s Office timely deposited every cent of this money in the county’s treasurer account as required by state law. This money was earmarked for fighting drug trafficking to help protect the citizens."
Hughes also claimed there is no evidence to support the accusation that jail records were deleted.
While this alleged exchange of cash for more lenient treatment may appear highly dubious, it's standard operating procedure for many law enforcement agencies, said Dan Alban, an attorney at Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm that advocates for the end of civil forfeiture.
"This is how law enforcement butters their bread," he told The Huffington Post. "They pull people over in these highway interdiction stops, they threaten them with criminal charges, they say, 'Why don't you just sign over this money and you can go?'"
Previous reporting on civil forfeiture abuse indeed suggests that this sort of extortive behavior is commonplace. And it's not only innocent property owners who feel the effects.
Wallace pleaded guilty in federal court last year to conspiring to distribute methamphetamine in Missouri, according to The Oklahoman. Colbert and Gragg apparently could have pursued charges to keep a drug dealer off the street. Instead, they simply used civil forfeiture to tax him and send him on his way.
One legal difference between Colbert's case and more routine instances of civil forfeiture hinges on the allegation that official records were deleted. While cops may use similar measures to pressure drivers into signing over their cash, they rarely leave evidence of a formal agreement. But Alban said that regardless of how the deal was made or where police ultimately put the cash, the charges demonstrate that civil forfeiture can present a serious conflict of interest.
"This shows the very fine line that there is between extortion and civil forfeiture," he said. "This isn't an outlier. This is a pretty standard civil forfeiture case -- a highway forfeiture stop where the sheriff or police asks someone to sign over the money and not be charged with a crime. That's commonplace across the United States. If more Americans understood that, there'd be a lot more grand jury indictments like this."
Oklahoma state Sen. Kyle Loveless (R) has been leading the fight to reform civil asset forfeiture over the past few years, and has faced intense backlash from law enforcement groups that have suggested his efforts are anti-cop and pro-drug dealer (or pro-terrorist).
In a statement to HuffPost, Loveless said the controversy over Colbert is just the latest sign that the practice needs to be overhauled in the state.
"This is another example of public safety taking a backseat to civil asset forfeiture and cash generation," he said. "The ability to pay for your freedom should not be an option in our criminal justice system."
Loveless also applauded the work of the grand jury and promised to continue working to enact civil asset forfeiture reform -- though his opponents appear intent on blocking his progress.
"I will follow this case closely as Sheriff Colbert and Mr. Gragg have their day in court -- unlike many victims of civil asset forfeiture," he said.