Law Enforcement Seizures Misspent, Missing

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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.

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“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.”

State Sen. Kyle Loveless

State Sen. Kyle Loveless

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 that Loveless made Monday about forfeiture misuses during 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 cash or bank accounts.

Under state law, the money or proceeds from forfeited property are supposed to be spent on enforcement of drug laws and drug-abuse prevention and education.

Both 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.

Travis White, general counsel for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, said that law enforcement is careful when it comes to seizures. Not allowing forfeiture unless a suspect is convicted would mean drug profits go untouched, he said.

White cited instances where a vehicle is stopped and thousands of dollars in cash are found hidden in a wheel well; the suspect says he didn’t know it was there, and officers can’t prove he’s lying. Without seizure, the suspect would drive on with the cash. With seizure, the suspect is forced to file in court later to claim the money, he said.

District Attorney Greg Mashburn

District Attorney Greg Mashburn

Regarding use of the property or money after seizure, audits of district attorney’s accounts by the State Auditor and Inspector’s Office have found the assets in a number of cases were misused or not accounted for.

A 2009 audit of the district attorney’s office that represents Beaver, Cimarron, Harper and Texas counties found that a Beaver County assistant district attorney began living rent-free in a house obtained in a 2004 forfeiture. A judge had ordered the house sold at an auction, but the prosecutor lived there through 2009.

Utility bills and repairs made to the house were paid out of the district attorney’s supervision fee account, the audit states.

The audit recommended the house be sold and the supervision fee account be reimbursed.

“These conditions resulted in expenditures that were not for the enforcement of controlled dangerous substances laws, drug abuse prevention and drug abuse education,” the report stated.

The audit also found the district attorney’s office didn’t report the benefit as income for tax purposes.

In a 2014 audit of the DA’s office representing Washington and Nowata counties, the State Auditor’s Office found that $5,000 in forfeiture funds had been used to make payments on an assistant district attorney’s student loans.

The report said the district attorney maintained the expense was justified because most of the cases the assistant DA prosecuted were drug cases.

After the issue came to light, the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council reimbursed the $5,000 using funds from its own student-loan program,  the State Auditor’s report states.

An Oklahoma Watch examination of the audits from 2007 to 2014 also shows at least a dozen cases of forfeited cash, guns and vehicles missing or not inventoried.

In a 2014 audit of District 21, which is Mashburn’s district and includes Cleveland County, three firearms seized and forfeited were found to be missing. The auditor cited a lack of policies and procedures in place to safeguard and track seized items.

The audit said the district attorney’s office disagreed it lacked proper policies and procedures to safeguard seized property but conceded that the three firearms were missing and steps had been taken to report the guns as stolen to a federal database. Mashburn could not be reached for comment on the finding.

Under Loveless’ Senate Bill 838, a criminal case would have to be brought against the property or cash owner before forfeiture actions could be filed against the property or cash in civil court. Also, seizure funds would be deposited into the state’s general revenue fund. The proposed law would also raise the burden of proof required in forfeiture cases.

Loveless’ bill is based on a similar one voted into law in March in New Mexico.

“It will keep the practice in place, but it takes away the possibility of an innocent person getting their stuff taken and also takes away the possibility for financial abuse on the back end,” Loveless said.

A legislative interim study on the issue will likely occur in September, Loveless said.

Comanche County Sheriff Kenny Stradley, who also sits on the Bureau of Narcotics commission, said Loveless’ bill would cripple law enforcement agencies’ counter-drug efforts.

“I know for a fact we all try to work very hard to rid this devil’s candy (drugs) off of our state. And for someone to try and push us back – sheriff’s departments, police departments – that’s how we continue our fight, is to take that money and go forward,” Stradley said. “That will set us back many, many, many years.”

FYI: Federal Seizures

The forfeitures at issue involve only state or local agencies with law enforcement powers.

The seizures are separate from those in which state and local authorities made seizures and had the assets “adopted” by federal agencies, which often shared most of those assets with the state and local agencies. According to the Washington Post, more than 55,000 seizures of assets valued at $3 billion were made under that “Equitable Sharing” program from 2008 to early this year. Many state and local agencies found that using the federal program to keep assets was easier than using their own state laws.

In January, the Obama administration barred local and state police from using federal “adoptions” to retain seized assets, with the exception of property related to public safety, such as weapons. State and local agencies can still keep forfeited cash and property under state law.

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  • Kay

    This will help restore individual rights. The ability of police to steal property has only served to corrupt police and encourage the taking of property with out legitimate cause.

  • Troy Fullerton

    The fifth amendment of the constitution clearly states “no person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” People shouldn’t have to prove that their money or property are not being used in connection with crime—it should be the other way around. There IS a middle ground, here, that should satisfy both side of the debate: with probable cause (under immediate review by a judge) cash or property suspected of being used for criminal purposes could be held in abeyance until the criminal matter is resolved—but only upon actual conviction would the forfeiture become permanent. No conviction would mean the owner automatically gets his cash or property returned, with no further action.

    When it comes to law enforcement, we don’t need our justice system turned into that of some corrupt banana republic. In a civilized society, we do not play “the end justifies the means” games. It is unqualifiably WRONG to seize people’s cash or property when they haven’t been convicted of a crime, and prosecutors or police using it for personal benefit should, in itself, be treated as a crime.

    • Tami

      I agree, this seems criminal on it’s own, the law it-self. Local and State authorities are receiving way to much power and are taking full advantage and using private citizen’s own monies, without regard if they are innocent. This to me is down right theft from the tax payer and the individual, all enforcement who can not account for the seizure funds should be prosecuted just as any other criminal is. How in the world did this happen? This is another example of Big Government not by the people or for the people, for no one but reelection and their selves. This sounds more like the Prosecutors have full rain over a private citizens monies and property, with no one to answer to, for this has been kept in the dark for way to long. I am outraged that this could even happen, and enraged that it has. This makes all Government and Police are worse than the criminals, at least the criminals earned it, not to say the innocent people that are having property seized that a local prosecutor wants, and can not afford through legal means. Government should be for the people by the people, not for the government and its employees.

      • ceanf

        How in the world did this happen?
        the war on drugs

  • Jon Carol

    “Devils Candy” …what a self righteous jerk. So this cop can instill his personal beliefs into his execution of law and order, more like he got caught and now plays the cop-out reference to Christian priciples. I missed that parts that says cops should steal and enriched themselves personally under the color of law. These people need to be indicted and jailed for corruption.

  • Laughing Hombre

    I would love to see this extended to monies brought in from fines as well. Everything down to traffic citations and parking tickets should end up directly in the state general fund. When 70%+ of our states police activity is to “generate revenue” its no wonder we need “extra” money for drug enforcement.

    If law enforcement needs more money, do the democratic thing and get your city/county/state reps to vote on it. Subverting the system by putting the majority of your enforcement efforts into making money just perverts the system.

  • Mark Aldridge

    A Washington County DA and 5 armed Bartlesville Police came to my house in Bartlesville on 3/6/15 and took thousands of dollars of my property. I have no record what so ever and was not charged, they just left laughing after tearing my house apart and stealing from me. I’ve reported this everywhere and no one will do anything. This is a terrible Police State, but I’ve found no one really cares as it is not happening to them. They single us out and steal from us, that is their way.

    • Laughing Hombre

      This is why filming any and all police interactions is sooooo critical nowadays…..I feel for yah…

  • dufas_duck

    “Law enforcement officials say forfeiture without conviction is necessary to stop drug money from moving through the state.”

    So, now people can’t carry cash, credit cards, debit cards, prepaid cards, gift cards without some police Rambo bankrupting them. My advise would be not to vacation, travel, or visit any state that uses police ‘road bandit’ mentality in their war against it’s citizens….

    Next, the police will come up with the logic that ‘imprisonment without conviction is needed to stop any and all criminal activity’….or, as a few cops have tried, writing random ticket using passing vehicles license plate numbers to fill their coffers with cash.., someone’s got to pay for all those donuts……

  • RW

    Have to have a conviction before the punishment of taking a person’s property? Sounds logical to me!

    • dufas_duck

      Do not throw logic into the mix, it will confuse the police, it’s bad enough already…..

  • The Troll Hunter

    After local law enforcement uses their Extra Sensory Perception to ascertain that all of your assets have something to do with a crime; e.g., you drove past a criminal last week, or your middle name is an anagram of some crime; and they seize all of your assets, they should then have the right, in fact the obligation, to subject you and all you passengers, to summary execution. That way, there’s no chance you’ll challenge the seizure in court! Fat City!! That will really stop the drug runners cold!!!

  • Survivor3306

    Did you read the penalty the assistant DAs had to suffer after improperly using stolen assets to live rent free for a decade and to pay off $5,000 in personal student loans? Yea, neither did I. None is the proper answer. The lawyers association paid back to crooked DA who used stolen money to pay off his debt. The squatter who lived in the house for ten years suffered no penalty.

    My God, have these people zero morals? How can those DAs prosecute anyone and have credibility?

    • smdog

      They only want to prosecute for drugs. Can’t get the DA to investigate real crime.

  • jofmok

    Oklahoma has a law that allows law enforcement to seize your bank account…on the spot, if they suspect you of stealing. How screwed up is that?