By M. Scott Carter
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Over a five-year period, law enforcement officials in 12 Oklahoma Counties seized more than $6 million in cash, almost $4 million of which was taken without any criminal charges, records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma show.
Records indicate that of the $6.1 million dollars taken, only $2.1 million was seized from people who were actually charged with a crime, meaning more than 65 percent of the cash seized was taken without any criminal charges being filed. The data is part of an upcoming ACLU of Oklahoma Report on Civil Asset Forfeiture.
“The preliminary data shows that many times money is being taken but charges aren’t being filed,” said Brady Henderson, ACLU of Oklahoma legal director. “But this is just the first look. Our examination of these records continues.”
The records, gathered through open records requests and court pleadings, document 319 cash seizure incidents in 12 of the 13 counties along the Interstate 40 corridor. The records do not include millions in federal seizures during the same period, nor seizures of other types of property such as cars or homes.
The incidents occurred from December 2009 through 2014 and include Beckham, Washita, Custer, Caddo, Canadian, Blaine, Pottawatomie, Seminole, Okfuskee, Okmulgee, McIntosh, Muskogee and Sequoyah counties.
Of the 319 seizure cases, criminal charges were filed in 205, no charges could be found relating to the remaining 114.
The ACLU of Oklahoma analyzed the records and cross-referenced them with district court filings in each county. The ACLU and several state lawmakers have called for changes to the state’s asset forfeiture laws. State Senator Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, is leading the effort.
“I’m not trying to take away any tools from our law enforcement,” Loveless said. “But I do believe we can improve the law.”
Ryan Kiesel, ACLU of Oklahoma executive director, agreed. Kiesel called the data ‘disturbing.’
“We understand the financial pressure law enforcement officials face to make due with shrinking budgets,” Kiesel said. “But these numbers seem to indicate that huge sums of money are being taken but criminal charges are not being filed. That’s not how the system is supposed to work.”
For example, in Canadian county law enforcement officials took $2,733,956.88 in cash in 44 seizure cases. However, of those 44 cases court records show that criminal charges were only filed in 23.
In Beckham County, located in western Oklahoma, records show that law enforcement officials seized $676,327 in cash. But of the 52 seizure cases, criminal charges were only filed in 31
In Caddo County, there were 39 seizure cases that totaled $1,231,921. Yet only $34,036 of those dollars were taken from people charged with a related crime. Over 97 percent of Caddo County’s seizure money appears to have been taken from people who were not found to be guilty of any crime.
Only one county, Seminole, filed criminal charges in every forfeiture case.
“It raises big red flags when about half the time money is taken, no charges are filed,” Kiesel said.
Henderson said he was also concerned by the use of affidavits of non-ownership by law enforcement officials. The affidavit, he said, allows the person from whom the assets were taken to disavow ownership of the money or property and, in most cases, simply leave the scene.
“What this says is that many times that law enforcement gets a person to sign a waiver and then money or property is seized,” he said. “Then that person is allowed to go on down the highway. I’m concerned that in many of those cases, instead of filing charges, we’re letting some people buy their way out of being arrested.”
Henderson said the ACLU would release new data as it became available.
A county-by-county breakdown includes:
- Canadian, $2,733,956.88 seized. Total cases: 44. Criminal charges filed 23.
- Caddo, $1,231,912 seized. Total cases: 36. Criminal charges filed 20.
- Custer, $536,921 seized. Total cases: 14. Criminal charges filed 6.
- Beckham, $676,327 seized. Total cases: 52. Criminal charges filed 31.
- Washita, $800 seized. Total cases: 2. Criminal charges filed 1.
- Sequoyah, $280,973 seized. Total cases: 12. Criminal charges filed 5.
- McIntosh, $165,423 seized. Total cases: 24. Criminal charges filed 16.
- Okmulgee, $87,553 seized.Total cases: 10. Criminal charges filed 8.
- Okfuskee, $22,508 seized. Total cases: 4. Criminal charges filed 1.
- Seminole, $11,893 seized. Total cases: 5. Criminal charges filed 5.
- Pottawatomie, $340,476 seized. Total cases: 108. Criminal charges filed 82.
- Blaine, $14,553 seized. Total cases: 8. Criminal charges filed 7.