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Lawmaker Proposes Property Forfeiture Reforms

Tulsa asset forfeiture attorney James Wirth spoke with Tulsa’s FOX23 investigative reporter Shea Rozzi about a bill that would change the way Oklahoma prosecutors can grab money or property from people accused of drug trafficking.

Under current Oklahoma asset forfeiture law, prosecutors can take assets from a person even if the person is not convicted of a crime.  Oklahoma State Senator Kyle Loveless introduced a bill during the 2015 legislative session that would make several changes, including:

  • Only allow seized assets to be forfeited after a criminal conviction for drug trafficking,
  • Shift the burden of proof to prosecutors to show that assets are drug related,
  • Increase the burden of proof for seizing assets from “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence,”
  • Require forfeited assets to be deposited in the state general revenue fund rather than be used by local district attorneys, and
  • Establish a statutory right to an asset forfeiture hearing before a jury at the same trial as underlying drug allegations.

During Rozzi’s interview, Loveless suggested he might change some provisions of his bill before the next legislative session. He said he might limit the reform to amounts not typical of major drug asset forfeitures, and might provide that funds be used for drug-related education rather than deposited in the general fund.

We would be glad to see any reform in Oklahoma’s policing for profit law, but do not agree that a watered down bill would be as effective at curtailing problematic policing for profit. Individuals might have large amounts of cash from private enterprise, inheritances or cash savings that could still be seized as alleged drug money. Prosecutors might continue to target owners of expensive vehicles or real estate if they are not required to prove criminal liability at a jury trial. We believe law enforcement priorities should be focused on crimes that pose the greatest public threat, and not on activities most likely to produce cash for their budgets.

Asset Forfeiture Audits Late

Unless seized assets are removed from local slush funds overseen by prosecutors who seize the assets, opportunities for abuse or mismanagement will remain. When Shae Rozzi contacted Wirth Law Office for information about asset forfeiture, we reviewed Oklahoma asset forfeiture practices. We found a fewer audits conducted than are required by state law.

When audits were conducted, auditors found some counties unable or unwilling to maintain proper controls over seized assets. Especially in smaller counties, auditors found insufficient control over collection, spending and reporting property forfeiture funds.

Oklahoma law currently requires seized assets to be deposited to a revolving fund overseen by local district attorneys. The prosecutors’ revolving funds are to be audited every two years by the State Auditor. Audits are seldom that frequent.

Our review of the state auditor’s Web site found the most recent audit for Tulsa County covered a three year period. The previous audit covered five years – from 2007 through 2011.

Likewise, the property forfeiture fund in Oklahoma’s 12th Judicial District, which includes Rogers, Mays and Craig Counties, was audited only once in a four year period between 2009 and 2013.

During those same years, the 12 Judicial District’s Office of District Attorney was rocked by scandal that involved conflict with other law enforcement agencies and questionable legal advice to the Rogers County Board of Commissioners. A separate audit of the Rogers County Board of Commissioners during those years returned findings related to public spending that were later mirrored in indictments against two commissioners.

Among counties in Northeast Oklahoma, recent property forfeiture fund audit findings included:

  • Rogers County audit revealed illegal lack of inventory for seized property from three counties.
  • Rogers County audit could not reconcile balances of $60,046 and $149,198
  • Rogers County audit found unapproved purchases,
  • Nowatta County did not maintain an inventory of forfeited property
  • Muskogee County audit found no documentation that purchased items were received
  • Washington County audit found no documentation items were received in 13 of 18 instances tested.
  • Washington County did not issue receipts for funds received
  • Washington County spent $5,000 to repay an assistant DA’s student loan, contrary to law according to auditors
  • Lack of separation of duties in Washington can result in errors or misappropriation.

Asset Forfeiture Reforms Gaining Momentum Nationwide

Since 2007, state audits have not included a tally of revenues and expenses property forfeiture funds. Between 2003 and 2006, when yearly audits included revenues and expenses, Tulsa County prosecutors deposited, on average, more than $400,000 a year to the fund.

The United States Department of Justice in 2015 ended a similar program that until then had let local law enforcement agencies bypass state asset forfeiture laws. The DOJ’s Equitable Sharing program allowed federal agencies to “adopt” assets seized by local agencies, essentially on a commission basis. Between 2004 and 2014, Tulsa police netted nearly $20 million through the program. Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office netted about $430,000 during that same time.

The USDOJ reform is one of several cracks appearing on the surface of civil forfeiture laws nationwide. In 2105, Indiana adopted a law that requires increased reporting of forfeiture activity. New Mexico in 2015 replaced its civil forfeiture law with a criminal forfeiture law, as Senator Loveless’ 2015 SB 838 would have done. New Mexico joined Missouri, Oregon and North Carolina to be among the few states that require criminal conviction before seized assets can be forfeited.

Free Consultation: Tulsa Property Forfeiture Lawyer

If police have seized your property and will not return it because they say it is related to drug trafficking, you might only have a limited amount of time to prove your right to keep your property. Wirth Law Office provides free, confidential consultations to assist you in determining how to best protect your rights.

Contact an Oklahoma asset forfeiture attorney in Tulsa at (918) 879-1681.

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