After using the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws to confiscate charitable donations from a Burmese Christian rock band touring the state, Oklahoma law enforcement agencies returned the seized cash and dropped charges filed against the band’s manager.
In February 2016, Eh Wah, manager of the Klo and Kweh Music Team, was stopped by Muskogee County, Oklahoma law enforcement officers, allegedly because of a broken taillight.
During the traffic stop, Muskogee County Sheriff’s Department deputy Ben Smith found no evidence of illegal activity, but he confiscated $53,249 in church donations given to the band, claiming Wah was in “possession of drug proceeds.”
Wah and the Music Team said they had raised funds to build a non-for-profit religious school in Burma and other charitable purposes.
In April 2016, Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge filed a warrant for Wah’s arrest, alleging Wah had acquired “proceeds of drug activity,” despite the lack of evidence proving the claim.
Later in April, Muskogee County government agencies returned the money and dropped their charges against Wah.
Dan Alban, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public-interest law firm representing Wah, says it’s difficult to believe the local police officers were acting in good faith.
“It would be one thing if out of an abundance of caution they kept the money overnight while they checked his story out,” Alban said. “Instead, they stopped investigating basically that night. The police report says that they were unable to confirm his story, due to a language barrier. Rather than trying to get an interpreter or resolve the language barrier, they decided to charge Eh Wah with a felony and keep all of the $53,000 that they had seized. That’s what’s outrageous about this case.”
Profiting from the Drug War
Alban says civil asset forfeiture creates perverse incentives for government law enforcement agencies.
“Law enforcement actually profits from the drug war, so they have an incentive to let the drugs get through, so that when the money is coming back, they can seize the money,” Alban said. “That is completely antithetical to how things are supposed to work. That’s just one example of the twisted incentives created by forfeiture.”
Seizure with a Smiley Face
Trent England, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, says civil asset forfeiture is anything but civil.
“The most important thing for people to understand is that the important word is ‘civil,’ which sounds very nice, … sounds like treating people well,” England said. “It doesn’t require the filing of any criminal charges. It doesn’t require the evidence that a criminal conviction requires. If you have your property taken through civil asset forfeiture, you don’t even have all the protections you would have if you were actually accused of a crime.”
Kimberly Morin ([email protected]) writes from Brentwood, New Hampshire.