Funds and property seized by Oklahoma law enforcement agencies have gone missing or have been used for personal or other improper purposes, state audit records reveal.
Among the violations were using seized money to pay on a prosecutor’s student loans and allowing a prosecutor to live rent-free in a confiscated house for years, records show.
The cases were cited in a state commission hearing Tuesday in which authorities objected to new legislation aimed at curbing abuses of civil asset forfeiture by state and local law enforcement agencies. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, has spurred heated opposition from district attorneys and sheriffs.
Forfeiture involves law enforcement agencies seizing private property and money believed to have been used in drug trafficking or other crimes. After the assets are forfeited in court, authorities can keep the money or property even when the suspect is never convicted or charged.
“The more I learn about it, the more upset and outraged I get that we’ve allowed this process to get to where it’s at,” Loveless said in an interview. “Your property is considered guilty until proven innocent. It is up to the individual to petition the government after they’ve seized it to prove that it is innocent. To me, that, on its face, is un-American.”
Law enforcement officials counter that forfeiture is necessary to combat drug trafficking and say that abuses are rare. They say Loveless is hyping the issue and using scare tactics to push his bill.
“I’m very concerned that’s the line he’s taking in that,” said District Attorney Greg Mashburn, who represents Cleveland, Garvin and McClain counties and sits on the commission overseeing the Oklahoma State Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. At the commission meeting Tuesday, he referred to statements on forfeiture misuses that Loveless made Monday at a Garvin County Republican meeting.
“That may be something we need to address at our next quarterly (commission) meeting, just to stay on top of it, because it’s going to be an issue that we need to address and educate people on. They’re telling scary stories on the other side, and it’s just not accurate,” Mashburn said.
Police seizures have been in place for decades throughout the country. After a seizure, a judge is asked to grant forfeiture, and ownership is then often transferred to the District Attorney’s Office. That office splits the money or the proceeds from the sale of property with local law enforcement agencies. Property may include vehicles, houses and businesses. The money may be in cash or bank accounts.
Under state law, the proceeds from forfeited cash or property are supposed to be spent on enforcement of drug laws and drug-abuse prevention and education.
Conservative and liberal advocacy groups and politicians allege that forfeitures have gone too far, taking assets from innocent people.
Loveless’ bill would not allow seized money or property to be forfeited unless the suspect is convicted.
Law enforcement officials say forfeiture without conviction is necessary to stop drug money from moving through the state.