9 Investigates: Seized Assets Used To Pay Law Enforcement Bills
OKLAHOMA CITY - Depending on who you talk to, civil asset forfeiture could either be an invaluable tool in battling drug cartels or an unlawful invasion of civil rights.
One state lawmaker, Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Mustang, believes that, too often, it's the latter and is intent on overhauling the practice.
Law enforcement agencies have been speaking out against Sen. Loveless since he first took up the reform cause last spring, and they continue to raise objections to his characterizations of CAF and its impact on citizens.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater has been an outspoken critic of CAF reform and recently invited 9 Investigates to tour the warehouse of COMIT, the Central Oklahoma Metro Interdiction Team. Prater believes the contents of the secret warehouse provide ample proof that civil asset forfeiture is too valuable to be tampered with.
"This is a typical type of a situation," said Prater, as he and News 9’s Alex Cameron walked into a spacious room at the back of the warehouse.
Prater pointed to a Lexus SUV which said COMIT officers had pulled over due to erratic driving.
"Very quickly they realized," said Mr. Prater, "that they had a professionally constructed compartment in the headliner of this vehicle."
The compartment could be accessed through two remotely activated hatches.
Laid out on the floor in another part of the room were a variety of what appeared to be used car parts.
"This is a steel box that has been professionally welded together," Prater explained, "and placed inside the back bumper of a Crown Victoria."
They are car parts, Prater explained, that were modified by intelligent people looking for ways to transport their contraband: bumpers filled with narcotics, spare tires stuffed with cash, altered mufflers and oil pans able to hold something other than oil, even a hollowed out four-by-six filled with heroin.
And what was in the compartment of the Lexus?
"There were 400-and-something thousand dollars in heat-sealed, very carefully packaged money, proceeds," Prater stated.
Funds from civil asset forfeiture covered nearly $1 million in Oklahoma County DA drug enforcement expenses in FY 2015. According to the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council, CAF proceeds covered $3.1 million in DA bills statewide.
Critics, like Senator Loveless, say that much money is an unhealthy incentive. Loveless says his research shows that in the counties that are intersected by Interstate 40, nearly half of those whose assets are seized are never charged with a crime.
"The government should not be able to take and permanently keep something," exclaimed Sen. Loveless, "basically on an assumption, without any proof or evidence."
But the sheriff in one of those counties says Loveless is way off base.
"I'm sick of that crap!" responded Randall Edwards, sheriff of Canadian County.
Edwards and other law enforcement officials say Loveless's numbers are wrong and he's telling half-truths, at best. They point out that they have to have probable cause to seize anything, and that it's a judge who decides whether the assets are forfeited.
Sheriff Edwards says, it's true that some of the people they stop and whose assets they seize aren't charged.
"When you stop them," explained Edwards, "they say, 'I don't know whose that is! It isn't mine!' and you say, 'Well are you willing to sign a non-ownership affidavit?' 'Absolutely!' They sign it and they're down the road -- there's no charges made because they're gone and they're not coming back!"
But Loveless says another problem with civil asset forfeiture is that it allows police to go around the regular budget process.
"A law enforcement agency comes to their budget committee or whatever, asks for money for something, they tell them no," Loveless related, "but then they go and use their seized money for it--well, that's not why we have a budget process."
Again, Sheriff Edwards takes issue with Loveless: "He doesn't know what he's talking about."
Edwards wants people to understand that seized money represents a loss for the drug cartels and a gain for the state.
"Every dollar we take," Edwards said, "saves the tax dollars that we otherwise would be spending on our agency, running it."
Mr. Prater becomes indignant at the suggestion that he and other police agencies are using CAF as a way to defy the wishes of the governing bodies that oversee them.
"They created this problem," Prater countered.