Lawmakers in Oklahoma are in the midst of a heated debate over the state's laws on civil asset forfeiture, a controversial practice that allows law enforcement to seize and sell a person's property -- including cash, cars, jewelry and houses -- without obtaining a conviction or even charging the owner with a crime.
At a hearing last week first reported on by Oklahoma Watch, reform advocates highlighted abuses of the policy that raise broader questions about accountability and potential conflicts of interest in the state's justice system. In one particularly brazen example, an unnamed Oklahoma assistant district attorney used $5,000 from a forfeiture fund to pay off their student loan debt, according to a state audit of local forfeiture programs published in 2013.
This violated existing law, because the fund can only be used "for enforcement of controlled dangerous substances laws, drug abuse prevention and drug abuse education," the auditor noted.
Law enforcement groups didn't appear bothered by this discovery, however, and countered that any change to forfeiture policies would constitute an unnecessary attack on drug interdiction efforts.
Police regularly use civil asset forfeiture to seize property from people suspected of involvement in the drug trade. But one of the most common and contentious examples of this procedure involves police seizing cash from motorists they stop.
In Oklahoma and other states, carrying a significant amount of currency constitutes enough "probable cause" for authorities to suspect a connection to criminal activity. Property owners aren't actually accused of any crime, because carrying cash is not itself an illegal activity. But they end up assuming the legal burden of proving their innocence in order to get their property back before it is forfeited, inverting the American legal principle of "innocent until proven guilty."
While law enforcement groups often say they're only targeting criminal syndicates, a number of reports have found that civil asset forfeiture is a cash cow that promotes policing for profit. Police departments aggressively pursue forfeiture, often ensnaring innocent citizens, particularly those who are already disadvantaged, along the way.
Furthermore, the unnamed Oklahoma prosecutor's use of forfeiture funds for personal purposes suggests that this problem may not be limited to police. The incident raises concerns that some prosecutors could be swayed on civil forfeiture cases since they could benefit -- sometimes personally -- from their outcome. Effectively, they could be prosecuting for profit.
But the district attorney's office didn't see the Oklahoma prosecutor's actions as a conflict, and actually argued that the expenditure was appropriate because the assistant DA was in charge of prosecuting many misdemeanor drug cases and juvenile delinquent drug cases. The assistant DA eventually returned the $5,000.
Oklahoma state Sen. Kyle Loveless (R), a sponsor of SB 838, a bill to overhaul the state's civil asset forfeiture laws, says this is just one example of the lack of accountability within the program.
"When I first introduced the bill, I was told, 'Abuses don’t happen in Oklahoma.' So we found some," he told The Huffington Post.
"Then I was told, ‘The good outweighs the bad.’ There are laws on the books that outline exactly how forfeited funds should be spent. Paying personal debt of employees is not one of them," Loveless said.
In another case Loveless and his allies cited last week, an assistant district attorney lived rent-free for a number of years in a house that had been seized and forfeited, despite the fact that a judge had ordered the house sold at auction.
"If this money is truly critical to law enforcement’s drug interdiction efforts, you would think every dime would be spent in clear support of that goal," the senator added. "One agency paid for a retirement party, while another took three years to even deposit the funds into their account. Seems to me, once law enforcement seizes personal property, it becomes a budgetary free-for-all."
Loveless introduced SB 838 this session in hopes of reining in abuses like these -- and to offer extra protection to citizens whose constitutional rights he believes are being violated by the civil asset forfeiture process. The bill would require authorities to bring criminal charges against a property owner before beginning forfeiture proceedings, and would channel the proceeds from seized property into the state’s general revenue fund, rather than sharing them between law enforcement agencies and district attorneys. It would also raise the burden of proof required in forfeiture cases.
As Oklahoma Watch reports, law enforcement groups are furious with the proposal. One district attorney and member of the commission overseeing the Oklahoma State Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs last week accused Loveless of "telling scary stories" about civil asset forfeiture in order to mislead the public. Another county sheriff said such reforms would make it much harder to get "this devil’s candy" -- in other words, drugs -- off the street.
But Loveless told HuffPost that Oklahoma law enforcement is overly reliant on forfeiture funds, often using them to supplement police budgets or to pay employee salaries. He pushed back against claims that this bill is an attack on law enforcement, and maintained that reforming forfeiture laws will ensure that agencies have their priorities in line.
"Appropriations should be made by legislators and county boards through the normal budgetary process, not from seized cash on the side of the road," he said. "Law enforcement shouldn’t be focusing on bringing in revenue for the agency; the focus should be on public safety."
"I’ve heard it said many times that law enforcement focuses on the cash because it hurts the cartels more than taking the drugs off the street," Loveless added. "Well, leaving the drugs on the street hurts Oklahomans more. This isn’t truly about interdiction, it’s about losing a very lucrative source of funding."