December 25, 2015

Anatomy of a Forfeiture Case

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Officers from the Canadian County Sheriff's office and  statewide agencies, such as the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, have seized nearly $1.5 million in cash since 2000. A lot of seizures occur from vehicles traveling Interstate 40.

Ben Fenwick/Oklahoma Watch

Officers from the Canadian County Sheriff's office and statewide agencies, such as the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, have seized nearly $1.5 million in cash since 2000. A lot of seizures occur from vehicles traveling Interstate 40.

On a March day in 2009, Moua Yang and his father, Chao Yang, were driving west from Oklahoma City in a rented Nissan sedan with more than $25,000 in cash in the back seat.

A Canadian County deputy stopped them.

Deputy Mike Stilley, working drug interdiction, clocked the car at 76 mph in a 70-mph zone on Interstate 40. He gave chase as he called in the vehicle’s out-of-state plate, pulled the car over and, after approaching on foot, began questioning the Yangs.

That questioning would lead to permission to search the vehicle – and then to Stilley’s finding the cash. He seized it, saying evidence showed it was tied to drug trafficking, which the Yangs denied. Never charged with a crime, they contested forfeiture of the money in court – a dispute that would drag on for nearly four years.

The Yang case illustrates the sometimes ambiguous circumstances surrounding the controversial practice of law enforcement agencies’ seizing assets from people whose only provable offense was a traffic violation.

It also raises questions about what is a valid suspicion, and what is a pretext, for officers’ pursuing a vehicle search. The Yangs accused Stilley of probing incessantly to justify a search and seizure. Stilley said he acted based on sound suspicions.

The case also stands out because in the end, the Canadian County District Attorney’s Office settled the case and split the seized money with the Yangs, who lived in Milwaukee, Wis., and paid an Oklahoma attorney.

Critics of civil asset forfeiture argue that authorities are often motivated more by profit than justice in confiscating millions of dollars over years without having proof even to  file charges.

Chris West, undersheriff for Canadian County who wasn’t involved in the Yang case, has said he supports civil asset forfeiture, but told Oklahoma Watch he opposes settlements in such cases.

“It doesn’t make sense,” West said. “It’s either drug money or it’s not. If it’s not, then give them the money back. Why would someone want to do a 50-50 split? Why are we cutting deals with drug people?”

In general, officials say nabbing whatever they can of drug-trade profits is what civil asset forfeiture is all about. Abuses are rare, they say. If police lose the right to wrest assets without securing a conviction, as legislation introduced this year proposes, drug cartels will easily reap more windfalls, police say.

Roadside Suspicions

During the questioning of the Yangs, Stilley became suspicious because of inconsistencies in their stories, according to a summary of the case provided by Canadian County Assistant District Attorney Mike Fields and an interview with Stilley.

Shortly after the stop, the officer separated Moua Yang from his father by having the son sit next him in the patrol car.

While the deputy ran his license, Stilley asked Moua Yang about their travel plans, court records say. Yang replied that the two were traveling to California to attend the wedding of his sister – Chao Yang’s daughter – on Saturday, and they planned to stay for two days.

Stilley became suspicious about the itinerary.

“California was less than one day of a drive, which meant Moua was allowing himself four days to get there,” says a court record quoting Stilley’s narrative. The stop occurred about 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 3.

The Yangs’ attorney, James Todd of Oklahoma City, said in a court filing that the distance to Los Angeles was between about 1,300 and more than 1,600 miles, depending on the route taken, and could take up to three days with stops. “Stilley failed to inquire or apparently consider whether claimants intended to take any breaks along the way … or for that matter why they might want to arrive in California prior to the actual commencement of the wedding ceremony.”

James Todd, Oklahoma City attorney

Ben Fenwick / Oklahoma Watch

James Todd, Oklahoma City attorney

Leaving Moua Yang in the patrol car, Stilley approached the Yangs’ car and asked Chao Yang for its rental agreement. The officer asked him about their destination, to which Chao Yang responded, “Mexico,” court records state. Moua Yang later told the officer that his father must have misunderstood Stilley, that he meant his daughter was marrying a Mexican.

Stilley said he noticed other inconsistencies. For one, the daughter had already married over the weekend.

Todd said in an interview that this was not unusual for Hmong people such as the Yangs.

The Hmong are a tribal people from southeast Asia, including Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. They were allies of the United States during the Vietnam War and fled the region when the Americans pulled out in 1975 and South Vietnam fell.

Todd said Hmong often have a civil wedding ceremony followed by a tribal one.

After returning to the patrol car, Stilley discovered from a driver’s license check that Moua Yang previously had been convicted of assault and “weapons violations,” Fields’ summary says. Yang responded that the conviction was the result of a “simple fight” years ago, and the weapons violation was because he used pepper spray during the fight.

Eventually, Stilley wrote Moua Yang a warning for speeding and told him that the traffic stop was complete. However, as Yang started to get out of the cruiser, Stilley told him his job was to investigate criminal activity through traffic enforcement. He asked whether Yang and his father were transporting any illegal drugs, weapons or large amounts of currency, court records say. Yang replied they were not. Stilley asked to search the vehicle and said Yang agreed.

Officer Mike Stilley

Officer Mike Stilley

Moua Yang opened the trunk, and it was empty, with no luggage, which Stilley found  suspicious. He looked in the back seat and found a duffle bag of several articles of clothing and a towel that smelled strongly of laundry detergent. Wrapped in the towel was $25,690 in cash, most of it in bundled $1,000 stacks. Moua Yang said he and his family had been saving the money for a long time. Both Moua and Chao Yang told Stilley they had been unemployed for two years.

Stilley reported the cash smelled slightly of marijuana, and a K-9 dog reacted to the money. A subsequent analysis by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation crime lab yielded no drug residue.

Todd said the purpose of the money became lost in a cross-cultural misunderstanding. When the Hmong get married, cash is solicited from family members and friends and bestowed on the newly married couple. The sums can be large.

Todd added that the Hmong tend to hold and carry cash because of their distrust of government and banks, stemming from their history in Laos and Cambodia when assets were taken from them.

“There’s a whole cultural issue there that in my opinion is impossible for a white, rural, small-town deputy to understand,” Todd said.

The court records do not say whether the Yangs told Stilley the money was to be used as a wedding gift.

Stilley concluded the money was likely related to the drug trade and he seized it.

“You’ve got twenty-five-grand wrapped the way it was wrapped, no job, two guys telling you that they’re going to different places, one of them is telling you they’re going to a wedding but neither one took any clothing to go to a wedding. In my line of work, we call that a clue,” Stilley said in an interview.

He advised the Yangs they would be able to seek return of the money in court.

Benefits and Costs

Three days after prosecutors filed a forfeiture action against the Yangs’ money, Stilley appeared before the Canadian County Board of Commissioners as head of a county tactical team, meeting minutes show. He said there was sufficient money to purchase new bulletproof vests for the tactical team. The vests cost about $1,700 each, for a total of $40,000. The money would come from the district attorney’s revolving drug fund, into which forfeited cash is deposited.

The item was approved.

Brady Henderson, legal director for ACLU Oklahoma, said law enforcement’s ability to make roadside seizures of cash that the officer knows could be spent on equipment or salaries for his or her agency holds an inherent conflict of interest.

Stilley said the seizure and the request for bulletproof vests were unrelated.

“Those are the tools we use, and if we take a drug dealer’s money, we buy additional equipment to help us in our job locating drug dealers and criminals,” Stilley said. “The intent is not to go out and try to seize money to buy more toys.”

In Todd’s view, whether or not to seize the cash was settled when Stilley found it.

“It might be hard to explain to that officer that you have a legitimate reason to have that money,” Todd said. “Whatever you say is going to be insufficient or just add to the suspicion that the officer has in his mind.”

No drugs were found during the stop. The Yangs had no warrants for their arrest. Court records indicate neither has ever been charged with a drug-related crime. No criminal charge was filed against them stemming from the stop.

However, Fields, the prosecutor, cited another factor that affected authorities’ view of the case. He said authorities received information through unidentified law enforcement records about international drug shipments. Todd, the Yangs’ attorney, questions the accuracy of those records.

The seizure petition described the money as “intended to be furnished in exchange for a controlled dangerous substance” in violation of U.S. drug laws.

The case went on until 2013, when the parties reached a settlement and $12,845 was returned to the Yangs. Todd said settling was a hard decision.

“Because of several factors, including the cost of defending the action, the clients made a determination to just settle the matter,” he said. “It happens a lot.”

Oklahoma Watch attempted to contact Moua or Chao Yang by email and telephone, and hired a freelance reporter to visit Moua Yang’s address listed in voter registration and Canadian County court records. A note was left on the door of the house, now boarded up, in a low-income Milwaukee neighborhood. Todd said he is no longer in touch with the Yangs.

Debate Over Curbs

Stilley is now training coordinator for the Yukon Police Department. In insisting that profit is not the purpose of cash seizures, he said that while he was patrolling highways, it was relatively rare – one out of hundreds of stops – that he would find drug money, drugs or other illegal activity.

“If there are clues and indications they are being deceptive or lying for one reason or another, we just go from there,” Stilley explained.

State Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, introduced a bill that would curtail police powers to seize cash or property. Among other things, SB 838 would require a conviction before assets seized by authorities could be forfeited.

Todd said the issue is that hundreds of people have their cash seized with officials not having to prove the cash is tied to a crime.

“If it’s drug proceeds, shouldn’t they be sitting in jail for transporting drug proceeds?” Todd asked.

Many law enforcement officials oppose the bill.

“This bill is a sham and a complete waste of time,” Stilley wrote in a message on Loveless’ Facebook page. “With all of the problems that plague this state, you are proposing a frivolous bill that benefits nobody but drug dealers and drug traffickers.”

  • Mike lowry

    Great story. It’s time for cops to start doing their full job.

  • Tom Elmore

    Among the complaints against George, III of England by the American colonists specified in The Declaration of Independence – “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.”

    The outrageous and arbitrary robbery of the people by “law enforcement officers,” protected by prosecutors and judges is indisputable proof of the degree to which the “justice system” charged with upholding the law and protecting the people of the state has gone rogue. Proof of involvement in such terrorism ought guarantee the removal of such people both from the public payroll and any further benefit at the expense of the people they have treacherously betrayed.

    Thanks to Oklahoma Watch for following and exposing these stories!

  • Buck Sheward

    Check out this disclosure: Published on Nov 22, 2015
    According to FBI statistics, US police have confiscated more assets from American citizens than criminals stole. A process called “civil forfeiture” allows authorities to seize property on only the suspicion is was acquired illegally. 2014 $4.5BB (This is what was reported). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYTdkSH9inM
    Is this not the most incredible statistic? Follow the money and you learn even more, I have. What we have is legalized theft by a known thief who we as taxpayers have hired.

    • Loran Hatfield

      Note that the statistics state that more assets were seized in civil forfeiture than in BURGLARY cases, not all crime. Also note that $1.7 billion of the $5 billion was recovered by the Bernie Maloof case, which was returned to the victims. Know the full story, not part of it.

  • Rick

    When an authority is allowed to profit from a punishment, it will be abused.

  • Gary Morrison

    “California was less than one day of a drive”? Officer Smiley is either a liar, has been misquoted or is ignorant. There is no other possibility. It’s a good three day or more drive unless you are killing yourself!

    This STINKS to high heaven and the sooner legislation is passed to stop this blatant abuse of citizens, the better. Can you imagine how long and hard these people had to work for that $25,000? And what about the damage this official theft has done to the new family? This whole thing is UN-American. Have we become Nazis? If all indications are true, this cop took advantage of vulnerable travelers to feather his own professional nest. That’s despicable. Protect and serve, except of course when you can STEAL a ton of money. How is that different from the thieves he chases?

    FORFEITURE SHOULD ONLY HAPPEN AFTER A CONVICTION! This is common sense. Yes to SB 838!

  • dforresttc1029@gmail

    I have worked in law enforcement. I am 63 years old. Its a shame when law enforcement becomes too calloused to see when they are wrong. You can be so gung ho to the point you dont uphold the law and civil rights, but instead you can abuse and break the law trying to enforce it. if the Supreme Court heard this case, officer Stilley would be facing some civil rights violations and possible prosecution himself, and the Supreme Court would have ordered all the money returned instead of half.

  • dforresttc1029@gmail

    I wonder how much racism, stereotyping and discrimination is in the minds of law enforcement that no one seems to see or talk about from what i have seen as an ex law enforcement officer there is still a lot of it in the minds and hearts of many officers. I personally have seen too much of this to mention. I could write a book thicker than the bible about crimes and abuses commited by law enforcement officials.

  • Margy McClain

    I worked with Hmong people in Chicago and Wisconsin in the 1980s, when they were still being resettled in the US from Southeast Asia. (This was the period when the Vietnamese community in Oklahoma City was formed). This incident could be, as noted briefly in the article, a case of cross-cultural misunderstanding which in turn becomes misused police power. The Hmong are an agricultural mountain tribe from Vietnam and Laos who fought with US troops during the Vietnam War. Their culture and language are significantly from Vietnamese. As is the case with many native partners in overseas conflicts, such as fighters and interpretors, the US promised them asylum should the war be lost. When the US pulled out of Vietnam, many of their Hmong partners were left vulnerable to the new government. Many Hmong people trekked out of their mountain homes to refugee camps in Thailand, and eventually were resettled in the US. They are not well known outside of the areas of the US where they have settled (including Wisconsin and California). As a subsistence agricultural people, they had few skills appropriate to the US culture. Hmong was still primarily an oral language and few people were literate in their own language, and there were few written materials available. Tribal/extended family connections are extremely important, as noted, and traditionally money was kept in the form of jewelry or cash. Although a new generation has grown up in the US, customs remain important. Families working for years to provide resources for other members, kept in cash, could be a continuation of long tradition. On the other hand, police not accustomed to communicating with immigrants, especially regarding unfamiliar customs, might easily be confused and come to erroneous conclusions.