Now under study, a bill by Oklahoma State Senator Kyle Loveless will reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws. Response from law enforcement has arched to hysterical as some say the change would make Oklahoma a safe haven for drug cartels and terrorist organizations.
Supporters of forfeiture reform say law enforcement is stealing private property without regard to Constitutional liberty.
Sen. Loveless and Sen. Mike Mazzei will be speaking today to the Republican Women’s Club of Tulsa County at their regular monthly meeting, but Tulsa Today spoke with Sen. Loveless in an exclusive interview last week on his reform effort.
Sen. Loveless is a conservative Republican. His bio is available online here and his campaign Facebook page is available here. He studied political science and business at the University of Oklahoma and completed his bachelor’s degree at Georgetown University in American Studies. Sen. Loveless was first elected in 2012.
Winding down last year’s session in my subcommittee; I was tasked with coming up with some of the biggest cuts in State government. As a conservative; I was glad to do it. We worked on consolidation of some agencies and looked at what other states are doing. In that review I came across several states that had passed civil asset forfeiture reform. At the time (April and May) I didn’t even know the terms.
I assumed that after a person faces trial and is convicted then their assets are given to the State that are directly related to criminal activity. I think across the board most people agree with that, but that is not civil asset forfeiture. The more I learned about it – the madder I got.
All the Constitutional protections that you think that we have as citizens are not present in civil asset forfeiture.
First and foremost, your property is assumed to be guilty once seized by law enforcement so it is up to you, as a private individual, to go before the courts to petition to get your stuff back.
For example; there was a gentleman driving from Kansas City to Houston with $17,008.00 on his person. He was stopped on I-35 in Norman, Oklahoma. Police said they thought he had marijuana on him. They searched him. They searched his car even with a drug dog and could not find any drugs. Law enforcement took the money anyway – every penny. He had go back home and it took him nine months after hiring an attorney costing him $8,000 to get his money back. That is not justice.
In my mind, if there is no arrest, no trial and no conviction then there is no justice in law enforcement seizer private property. It is just that simple.
What allows them to seize private property is the lower threshold of evidence under the current law. The highest standard of evidence is beyond reasonable doubt. The lowest standard is a preponderance of evidence – basically an assumption that the asset is being used for or is a byproduct of a crime. Mainly it is used in reference to drugs, but it could be racketeering, human trafficking or some form of organized crime.
On such a minimum assumption, they can take your car, boat, trailer or whatever. In another example; there was a boutique owner in Oklahoma City that law enforcement thought and asserted was dealing drugs. They took $2,500.00 out of her cash drawer and a couple of thousand dollars of goods she was selling. They searched her store and found no drugs. They continued to assert she was a drug dealer and demanded that she take them to her home. She took them to her home and they searched there and found nothing illegal, but it has been nine months now and she is still trying to get her money and her goods back. This store was not selling paraphernalia for drug usage. She sold purses, jewelry and gifts primarily for women.
There are also cases of people on the side of the road where law enforcement takes $400 or $300 and what is crazy is that the case becomes against the property when no person is charged. The case filing, for example, might be “The State of Oklahoma vs. $17,008.00.” That money in these cases has no rights whatsoever.
Part of the problem is that we don’t know how often these kinds of seizers take place, how much money in total is involved or how bad it really is.
Current law states that law enforcement is to keep a accurate and up-to-date inventory of what they seize, but none of the Counties comply. What records are kept are not reported to the State Auditor and Inspector as the law requires. Without reporting – no one knows.
In a press release to local media, Tulsa County District Attorney Mike Fields asserts that civil forfeiture is a necessary and important tool in fighting crime.
Specifically regarding the bill, Fields said, “It’s just common sense that drug dealers and traffickers shouldn’t be allowed to keep the money they make from selling drugs. They use the money they make to produce more drugs and destroy more lives and more families. They shouldn’t be allowed to profit from the devastation they cause. We’re opposed to any measure that will make it easier for them to do that, and that’s exactly what this bill will do.”
“Oklahoma’s prosecutors and law enforcement officers are offended by the assertion that we’re violating Oklahomans’ rights. We take our oaths to support, obey, and defend the Constitution very seriously. We’re looking forward to showing the public why his bill is misguided,” Fields said.
Sen. Loveless continued:
What I know is that if there are abuses and the system of civil asset forfeiture is flawed in forty-nine other states and the Federal government – odds are it is a problem in Oklahoma. I am getting a great deal of push back from law enforcement, but I try not to take that personally.
Law enforcement has said in my presence about my bill that, if it passes, ISIS and Al Qaida will benefit. I don’t take that hyperbole personally, but when I hear that, it makes me realize that there is something serious going on and something needs to be done.
The bill is progressing. I introduced it in May. First we have an interim study, now underway, then in February we will move forward with the bill. I have one bill now, but may add others to address reporting and timeliness issues. This issue is very large and complicated. That is why I introduced in in May so we could take time to hear from law enforcement and the public.
The response to the bill from legislators to date has been very positive, but after the push back from law enforcement, they also talk about my having ‘stepped in it’ and ‘thanks for another serious issue we are going to have to deal with’ next session.
My answer is that dealing with serious issues is what I was elected to do.
The truly sad cases that I have found are the low dollar amounts in which people are afraid to come forward because they don’t want to be targeted by law enforcement.
I have talked with at least ten people that have been pulled over and, while not finding any drugs and law enforcement didn’t bring charges (not even a traffic ticket), they took money and other property because they claimed it was involved in the drug trade.