Oklahoma might be best known as a home to Sooners, Cowboys and country music fans, but a local prosecutor and police officer say the state will be welcoming violent drug cartels if a Republican lawmaker gets his way.
State Sen. Kyle Loveless has been trying to muster support this year for a bill that would reform a controversial law enforcement tool known as civil asset forfeiture. Using the practice, police and prosecutors in the state work together to permanently seize cash and property -- including cars, homes and businesses -- based on the suspicion that it's connected to criminal activity.
Proponents maintain that civil asset forfeiture is an important crime-fighting tool, often saying it lets them attack the profits of drug traffickers even when there's not a clear criminal link. But it gives authorities the power to take property without charging its owner with a crime, much less securing a conviction. In Oklahoma, the state isn't even required to provide definitive proof of the alleged criminal ties before taking control of the property, selling it and giving the money back to the departments involved in the case.
Loveless sees this as a fundamental violation of people's rights to due process and property and says the lax standards have gotten innocent people in Oklahoma caught in the civil asset forfeiture net. On Thursday, he sparred with Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler and Eric Dalgleish, a major at the Tulsa Police Department, over the merits of his bill to require a criminal conviction to permanently take someone's property.
Under the proposed law, police could still seize property but would need to secure a criminal conviction to permanently keep it. The measure is currently stalled in the state legislature, but Loveless hopes to push it forward in the next legislative session.
Kunzweiler, the district attorney, said the extra level of protection was unnecessary and that raising the bar for forfeiture would effectively roll out a welcome mat to ruthless drug traffickers from Mexico.
"What we're talking about is inviting some of the most violent people on the history of this planet," he said on the Pat Campbell Show on KFAQ. "You see what goes on in Mexico, you see people's bodies decapitated and hung from bridges. And if you want to bring that drug cartel ideology to Oklahoma, do exactly what Senator Loveless' bill is suggesting," he said.
"We have meth coming through here; it's all coming from Mexico," Kunzweiler continued, going on to say that Loveless was trying to remove "our incentive to take away their profit."
Dalgleish later said that cartels were keeping a close eye on Loveless' legislation and even lobbying for its passage.
"What it will do is enhance the drug trafficking organizations -- that's who's supporting his bill is the drug trafficking organizations," he said. "They are politically savvy. They are political activists. If you think they're not watching this and deciding what state to set up business in, we're being naive and we're being ignorant."
Host Pat Campbell asked the guests if law enforcement opposed reform because civil forfeiture has become a "cash cow," and Kunzweiler and Dalgleish admitted their offices currently split the proceeds. They didn't say what portion of their budgets comes from these funds, but a recent report from The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, found that Oklahoma law enforcement agencies took in nearly $100 million from forfeiture proceeds between 2000 and 2014. Kunzweiler and Dalgleish argued that fewer dollars coming in from forfeiture would leave taxpayers picking up some of this slack.
This dynamic, in which funding is tied to individual departments' capacity to seize or forfeit property, has led to criticism that civil forfeiture invites a system of policing and prosecuting for profit. The Institute for Justice recently gave Oklahoma's civil forfeiture law a D-minus, in part because it allows law enforcement to receive up to 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property. This incentive scheme, IJ writes, is more likely to encourage police to prioritize seizures over public safety.
Listen to the whole debate at KFAQ.
Loveless is open to discussing his bill's implications for law enforcement budgets, he told The Huffington Post in an interview Friday. But more importantly, he believes it's necessary to rethink this source of revenue altogether if there's a risk of it being taken out of the pockets of innocent people.
"I think that most people would agree that if we can convict and use criminals' assets against them, that would be great -- and that's the whole concept," said Loveless. "But the problem of it is, should we use that money before there's a conviction? I don't think so, because the person is not a drug dealer until they're convicted under the law."
"We want to give law enforcement the tools, but not at the expense of innocent people's stuff," he continued.
He wasn't fazed by the personal attacks against him, Loveless said, adding that law enforcement officials have even accused him of getting support from ISIS and al Qaeda.
"When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser," Loveless said, quoting Socrates.
He then referred to a recent poll showing that nearly 70 percent of Oklahomans believe people's property shouldn't be forfeited without a conviction.
"I think [law enforcement] realizes that most people in Oklahoma don't want the government taking stuff without it being directly tied to a crime," said Loveless.