Oklahoma’s civil asset forfeiture laws give law enforcement officials significant financial incentives to seize property, according to the Institute for Justice. Civil asset forfeiture, also known as civil judicial forfeiture, is a controversial legal process by which law enforcement agencies take personal assets from individuals or groups suspected of a crime or illegal activity. Assets can be seized without bringing criminal charges against those whose assets are seized, and the standards of proof allowing seizure differ from state to state.
In Oklahoma, in order to take property in civil proceedings, the government is typically required to demonstrate the property was related to a crime and subject to forfeiture by a preponderance of the evidence. In all civil forfeitures in Oklahoma, property owners are presumed guilty and forced to contest forfeiture; they must prove they were not aware their property was being used illegally. Law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma keep 100 percent of the proceeds from civil forfeiture. Between 2000 and 2007, Oklahoma law enforcement agencies averaged more than $5.5 million per year in forfeiture proceeds.
Proponents of forfeiture say it allows law enforcement agencies to use seized assets toward enforcement efforts, transforming property illicitly gained by criminals into resources usable for public benefit. Critics of the process note it gives law enforcement economic incentives to seize property, corrupting law enforcement agencies and penalizing innocent property owners. Many states impose no penalties on law enforcement personnel for wrongful seizures, and when property is deemed to have been taken illegally, taxpayers usually have to pay for restitution.
The Institute for Justice points to the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control as an example of such overreach. The bureau is limited in the amount of seized funds it can spend, but those limits have been increased in recent years. Before 2007, the bureau was required to seek permission of the legislature to spend more than $900,000 of forfeited funds. After 2007, the bureau could spend up to $2.0 million of forfeited funds before seeking the legislature’s permission.
A new effort to reform Oklahoma’s civil asset forfeiture law is underway. In May, state Sen. Kyle Loveless introduced a civil asset forfeiture reform bill requiring a criminal conviction before agencies could keep property or funds. This would not stop police from seizing property they believe to be part of a crime, but property owners not ultimately convicted of a crime would be allowed to retrieve their property. The bill would also address the incentive problem by requiring forfeited funds to be sent directly to the state’s general fund.
These reforms are steps in the right direction, but more can be done. Scott Bullock, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, advocates eliminating forfeitures altogether except in cases of maritime and customs law. He also offers five recommendations for states not willing to halt all forfeitures: place seized revenues in neutral funds, increase the standard of proof for seizure to require “clear and convincing evidence” of a crime, move the burden of proof to the government, make the tracking of seized assets more transparent, and eliminate “equitable sharing” arrangements.
Oklahoma lawmakers should strongly consider these reforms. They should work to ensure assets are seized only for legal reasons and remove the incentive for law enforcement to seize any more property than is necessary.
The following documents provide additional information about civil asset forfeiture.
Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture
Marian Williams, Jefferson Holcomb, Tomislav Kovandzic, and Scott Bullock argue civil asset forfeiture laws constitute one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. “Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head. With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent,” they write.
Civil Asset Forfeiture, Equitable Sharing, and Policing for Profit in the United States
Jefferson E. Holcomb and Marian R. Williams, professors in the Department of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University, and Tomislav V. Kovandzic, a professor in the University of Texas-Dallas School of Economic, Political, and Policy Studies, identify the effects of civil asset forfeiture reform on law enforcement activities. They write, “There is substantial anecdotal evidence that law enforcement [agencies] utilize a variety of tactics to generate the greatest revenue from their forfeiture operations,” confirmed by their analysis of U.S. Department of Justice statistics.
Seize First, Question Later: The IRS and Civil Forfeiture
Institute for Justice researcher Dick M. Carpenter II and attorney Larry Salzman examine the use and abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws by the Internal Revenue Service. “Federal civil forfeiture laws give the Internal Revenue Service the power to clean out bank accounts without charging their owners with any crime,” they write.
Civil Asset Forfeiture: 7 Things You Should Know
This Heritage Foundation Factsheet outlines important things people should know about civil asset forfeiture.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Goes Mainstream
Jordan Richardson of The Heritage Foundation discusses how the growing number of civil asset forfeiture abuses has drawn the attention of news media and suggests the increased attention may lead to real reform.
The Civil Asset Forfeiture Racket
A. Barton Hinkle of the Reason Foundation examines the growing problems created by civil asset forfeiture and argues for repeal of such laws.
Inequitable Justice: How Federal ‘Equitable Sharing’ Encourages Local Police and Prosecutors to Evade State Civil Forfeiture Law for Financial Gain
This report from the Institute for Justice examines the federal law enforcement practice known as equitable sharing, which enables and indeed encourages state and local police and prosecutors to circumvent the civil forfeiture laws of their states for financial gain.
Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit Budget & Tax News at http://news.heartland.org/fiscal, The Heartland Institute’s website at http://heartland.org, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database at www.policybot.org.
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