- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 1, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Oklahoma laws that allow law enforcement to seize money and property they believe are linked to criminal activity are ripe for abuse and should have safeguards so assets aren’t seized from innocent people, experts told lawmakers on Tuesday.

A proposed bill by Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, would require a criminal conviction and increase the amount of evidence authorities need to seize property. But the changes are facing stiff opposition from law enforcement and prosecutors who use the seized funds to help pay for their operations.

Loveless’ bill also would require seized assets go to the state’s general revenue fund, not to the agencies that seized it. But he recently said he was open to creating a separate revolving account that would be dedicated to funding law enforcement operations.

John Malcolm, a former U.S. attorney and assistant attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, said the ability of local law enforcement to keep the proceeds it seizes is an inherent conflict of interest that should be addressed.

“The amount of money involved in civil asset forfeiture is huge - millions if not tens of millions of dollars - and almost all of that money goes directly into the accounts of law enforcement agencies that seize the property in the first place, totally outside of the normal legislative appropriation process,” Malcolm said during a hearing at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City that attracted mostly supporters of the bill.

“Police and sheriff’s departments and prosecutors often end up having a significant budgetary stake in the outcome of forfeiture cases,” he said.

But in a separate hearing on the proposal at the Tulsa Police Academy, officers and prosecutors testified against the idea.

District Attorney Mike Fields, who represents five counties in north-central Oklahoma, said adequate safeguards are already in place. He said Loveless’ bill would hamper law enforcement’s ability to go after drug cartels and criminal street gangs.

“Oklahoma recognizes the absolute defense of an innocent owner,” Fields said. “A claimant has a right to a jury trial. And, this is an important point, any and every forfeiture - whether it’s contested or whether it’s not contested - ultimately is reviewed by a judge, and a judge has to sign off and agree that that threshold evidentiary limit has been met.”

While there have been isolated reports of seized money being improperly spent, and other cases of cash and property being taken without proper justification, systematic abuses have not been uncovered in Oklahoma, said Stephen Henderson, a criminal law professor at the University of Oklahoma.

“While hopefully there are no systematic civil forfeiture abuses in Oklahoma, we would not know them if there were,” Henderson said during the Oklahoma City hearing. “The system lacks the accounting and transparency mechanisms that would bring any such abuses to light.”

Loveless, who conducted the hearing in Oklahoma City, said he expects to introduce a separate bill that would create a centralized reporting mechanism so that law enforcement agencies in all of Oklahoma’s 77 counties would be required to report how much property has been seized and the status of forfeiture proceedings.

Both of Loveless’ bills will be considered when the legislative session begins in February.

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Online:

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

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Associated Press reporter Justin Juozapavicius contributed to this report from Tulsa.


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