An Oklahoma state senator is pushing to reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws, which he says presume citizens’ guilt and violate their civil liberties.
State Sen. Kyle Loveless (R-Oklahoma City) is sponsoring a bill that would reform laws permitting law enforcement agents to seize people’s cash and property without first proving a crime has occurred.
“I don’t believe that it’s American to have people assumed guilty,” Loveless said. “I think most people, most Americans, and most Oklahomans don’t even know that this seizure stuff is possible. I just don’t think that seizing property with so few restraints is a way that we want government to behave.”
Loveless says his bill achieves several goals.
“My bill does four things,” said Loveless. “It changes the presumption … a property owner is guilty until proven innocent. I switched that back to the way it should be. I raised the evidence level to make it more difficult for law enforcement to take it. And then I also make the appeals process quicker for innocent people. And the fourth thing is I take away the financial incentives [law enforcement has to take property].”
Due process and private property ownership rights are uniquely American values, Loveless says.
“The Founders, even John Locke before the Founders, equated life, liberty, and property [as] all the same,” Loveless said. “They kept them equally important. If you look back in the history of asset forfeiture, it grew from a tool against the mob and gangs, to drugs and the cartels, now to terrorism, but it’s going to keep growing unless we do something to stop it.
“I think as long as we keep letting it grow, then more and more innocent people are going to get their property taken without proper limitations,” Loveless said.
‘A Perverse Incentive’
Trent England, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, says civil asset forfeiture reform is a commonsense idea.
“People just assume government cannot take your property based on a hunch,” England said. “All civil asset forfeiture reform does is bring the law into line with what citizens already expect.”
England says the current system incentivizes government agencies’ abuse of people’s rights.
“Do we really want police departments to have a financial interest in certain kinds of investigations?” England said. “The current system creates a perverse incentive for police to focus on suspects with flashy cars or other goodies rather than on those who pose the greatest danger to the public.”
England says the problem has deep roots.
“With an issue like this, the more we talk about it, the more we find examples of abuses,” England said. “These fall into three categories: wrongful seizures, misuse of seized property, and false or missing records. Reform needs to address each of these three failures of the current system of asset forfeiture.
“Law enforcement should be about public safety and justice, not seizing property to pad the agency budget,” England said. “What we want is a bright line between policing and privateering.”
Warner Todd Huston ([email protected]) writes from Streamwood, Illinois.