- Associated Press - Friday, August 21, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - A state senator looking to change Oklahoma’s laws that allow police to seize money or property believed to come from criminal activity is facing fierce opposition from law enforcement agencies that use the forfeited property to help fund their operations.

Oklahoma City Republican Sen. Kyle Loveless introduced a bill last session that would have required a criminal conviction before a person’s property can become subject to forfeiture. His bill also would have sent the proceeds to the state’s General Revenue Fund instead of allowing it to be used by the agency that seizes it.

“Innocent people shouldn’t have to petition the government to get their stuff back,” said Loveless, R-Oklahoma City. “The goal is to make sure law enforcement has the resources they need to do what they do, but also to make sure it’s not done by taking innocent people’s stuff.”

Loveless’ bill was introduced late in the session and didn’t make it far, but he’s scheduled to explore the issue further during an interim study scheduled for Sept. 1 in Tulsa. Besides a variety of national experts on seizure policies, Loveless said he hopes to bring ordinary citizens who have had property wrongfully seized from them by law enforcement.

The plan is drawing fierce resistance form district attorneys and numerous law enforcement agencies, both of which are recipients of seized funds that can be used to help bolster their operations.

Mike Fields, district attorney for five Oklahoma counties, disputes the suggestion that Oklahoma’s seizure laws are being abused and innocent people are being targeted.

“We don’t believe there are widespread, systemic abuses as proponents of the legislation have argued,” Fields said. “Instead, we believe that Oklahoma’s law has adequate safeguards in place to protect citizens’ rights.”

Under existing law, money and property can be seized by law enforcement if a preponderance of evidence suggests it was derived from illegal drug activity, but it requires prosecutors to file a civil forfeiture action that must ultimately be approved by a judge. The citizens must be notified and can challenge the forfeiture in court. But Loveless’ bill would increase the evidence threshold to “clear and convincing evidence,” entitle a party to a trial by jury and have the case combined in a single proceeding with the trial of the alleged crime.

But Fields and other opponents say such requirements would make it nearly impossible to seize large quantities of cash from drug couriers who often are not committing any other crimes. Canadian County Undersheriff Chris West, whose deputies help work Interstate 40, a busy corridor for drug traffickers, says it’s not difficult to determine when they encounter drug money.

“We’re talking about money that’s hidden in automobiles, maybe underneath the carpet. It’s shrink-wrapped three times and duct taped,” West said. “That’s not how normal people transport money.”

Part of the problem with analyzing Oklahoma’s seizure laws is that there is no central reporting requirement that allows the public to see what kind of activity is taking place across the state, said Ryan Kiesel, the executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a supporter of Loveless’ effort.

“There’s no uniformity in how these records are being kept or reported, so it’s taking quite a bit of time to get to a point where we can make heads or tails of what’s actually happening,” said Kiesel, whose office has made requests of all 77 county treasurers under the state’s Open Records Act.

“We have enormous amounts of money and property being seized, and the transparency and accountability Oklahomans might anticipate would go along with that just isn’t there.”



Senate Bill 838: https://bit.ly/1MIXZCr


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