Correction: A Wednesday Tulsa World story incorrectly characterized how Apache Chief of Police Stephen Mills said the civil asset forfeiture process is viewed. He said it is viewed as a cash register. This story has been corrected.
Legislators heard opposing arguments at opposite ends of the Turner Turnpike on Tuesday as two Republican state senators waged dueling public hearings on the state’s civil asset forfeiture law.
At the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, witnesses assembled by Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, testified to a forfeiture process rife with real and potential problems that encourage the seizure of private assets by law enforcement.
At the Tulsa Police Academy in north Tulsa, a roomful of law officers and prosecutors voiced outrage at that notion and said forfeiture is one of the most important weapons in the war against drugs.
“The idea that officers would take innocent citizens’ property and use it for their own gain is offensive and baseless,” said Tulsa Police Maj. Eric Dalgleish.
“I’ve never seen this level of attack on law enforcement,” said Darrell Weaver, director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control. “You see it across the nation and in our own state. … The question to me is a matter of integrity.”
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process by which law enforcement authorities seize and in most cases gain legal ownership of assets believed to have been used or obtained through illegal activity — usually the drug trade.
Loveless has filed legislation that would make forfeiture more difficult for law enforcement and would direct forfeiture proceeds to the state’s general revenue fund.
Forfeiture funds are now retained by the law enforcement agencies involved in each case.
Tuesday’s competing hearings were the result of a rift between Loveless and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Anthony Sykes, R-Moore. Loveless originally asked for the hearing — known as an interim study — but withdrew his request when Sykes scheduled it at the Tulsa Police Academy.
Sykes is a former Oklahoma County assistant district attorney.
On Tuesday in Oklahoma City, Loveless said the forfeiture system has become too big and the property of innocent people is being taken.
Those who have had property wrongly seized, Loveless said, have to petition a court to get it back, often incurring legal expenses in the process. Those expenses are sometimes more than the value of the cash or other assets seized, which creates a disincentive for property owners to try to get their property back, said criminal attorney James Todd.
“We promise them due process under the Constitution,” he said. “In practice, we don’t give it to them.”
Apache Police Chief Stephen Mills said civil asset forfeiture is viewed as a “cash register.”
The process does not have widespread abuse, but as written, the law allows for widespread abuse, Mills said.
Stephen P. Henderson, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, said the state needs to increase the legal threshold for such seizures.
In an effort to end policing for profit, actual or alleged, Henderson said the funds seized should not be used to operate the offices of law enforcement but should be put in the state’s general fund, which is appropriated by lawmakers.
“In return, however — and this cannot be stressed enough — the Legislature must commit itself to directly funding the needs of Oklahoma law enforcement,” Henderson said.
When a person goes to court and successfully challenges a seizure, there should be a mechanism to recoup the costs, Henderson said.
Critics also said there needs to be more transparency in the process, allowing the public to know what was seized, the dollar amount and how it was used.
Brady Henderson, ACLU of Oklahoma legal director, said the state’s 77 counties have different systems, practices and procedures when it comes to civil asset forfeiture and reporting.
“Many seizures are never tied to criminal activity,” Henderson said.
In Tulsa, prosecutors and law officers ridiculed the idea of “policing for profit” and the notion that forfeitures must ultimately result in criminal convictions. They said in many cases seized assets, especially cash, cannot be legally connected to any person and that typically in such cases no attempt is made to recover the assets.
All denied revenue from asset forfeitures influences law enforcement decisions, but several acknowledged that the loss of that revenue would have a negative impact on their agencies.
Public Safety Commissioner Michael Thompson said his department depends on nonappropriated money to make payroll and needs the $1 million or so a year it receives from forfeitures.
“Basically, I have no safety net,” Thompson said. “If something happened, I’d have to come to the Legislature for a special appropriation. And I’m not unique.”
Thompson said the reform element has made “a pretty compelling argument. It’s not true, but it’s pretty compelling.”
One of the legislative panelists, state Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, said he is unconvinced that forfeiture is a problem in Oklahoma.
“I’m not hearing about abuses here,” he said.