Analysis: The story on Forbes.com posted February 18 and continues national interest in an Oklahoma issue hotly debated and previously covered (here, here and here) by Tulsa Today. Civil forfeiture is how Oklahoma district attorneys can take your cash, guns and vehicles (top three seized) without a criminal conviction. It is literally both highway and home robbery.
Forbes begins: Without ever having to file criminal charges, police are routinely seizing (and keeping) cash, cars and other valuables. Known as “civil forfeiture,” the practice has netted law enforcement billions of dollars in revenue nationwide. Determined to end unjust forfeitures, an unusual coalition of libertarians, constitutional conservatives and civil-rights activists have banded together to press for reform in state legislatures across the country.
And nowhere has that battle raged fiercer than in Oklahoma.
Over the past year, stories involving police confiscation in this deeply conservative state have erupted into national headlines. An assistant district attorney once used forfeiture funds to pay his student loans. Another prosecutor lived for years, completely rent-free, in a home seized in a drug raid. Previously, The New Yorker reported that police in Tulsa have driven “a Cadillac Escalade stenciled with the words ‘THIS USED TO BE A DRUG DEALER’S CAR, NOW IT’S OURS!’”
In order to drastically overhaul civil forfeiture, Republican State Sen. Kyle Loveless has introduced the “Personal Asset Protection Act.” At a hearing last September, his bill earned an endorsement from an unlikely source: a sitting police chief, Stephen Mills.
Mills has an extensive record of public service. He served 24 years in the Army, first as a military police officer and later as a Special Agent for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, before retiring in 2011. Mills also worked as a police officer in several Oklahoma towns, when in late 2014, he became chief of police for Apache, a small town with about 1,400 residents.
Simply put, Mills wants “civil forfeiture done away with.”
“All forfeiture proceedings need to be done under criminal law and require a guilty verdict,” he said in an interview. Mills practices what he preaches: In Apache, “all property taken is taken either as evidence or illegal contraband.”
At this writing, Oklahoma Senator Anthony Sykes (R-Moore) is betraying Conservative Republican and Libertarian citizens that have long supported him on multiple issues by not allowing a bill on civil asset forfeiture reform authored by Senator Kyle Loveless to be heard in his committee.
Readers should clearly understand that the majority of Oklahoma district attorneys are honest, dedicated to justice, underpaid and struggling to address a huge volume of cases. However, this should not motivate or justify stealing stuff without a criminal conviction.
Contrary to law enforcement’s hysterical propaganda, nothing in the bill by Senator Loveless would hinder agencies’ ability to forfeit assets from convicted criminals or to prosecute drug traffickers. Compared with reforms in other states, Loveless’ proposal is modest. Last year, New Mexico abolished civil forfeiture, setting the gold standard. Loveless’ proposal doesn’t go so far, but it would nonetheless provide important protections for Oklahoma property owners.
The Judicial Committee of the Oklahoma Senate is led by two attorney/legislators: