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Recent Abuse of Forfeiture Law Highlights Need for Reform in Oklahoma

FreedomWorks has been a strong supporter of civil asset forfeiture reform. In the past we’ve put forward stories like that of Mandrel Stuart whose money was seized by the Fairfax County police, leading to the eventual loss of his restaurant. Another case in North Carolina saw Lyndon McClellan’s bank account wrongfully seized by the Internal Revenue Service.

This time, in Oklahoma, a 40-year-old Texas man, Eh Wah, was stopped while traveling on the road for 12 hours towards Dallas to visit his family. Mr. Wah spent months away touring the country as a volunteer manager for a Christian rock group from Burma (also known as Myanmar) named Klo & Kweh Music Team. The Christian band toured the United States in an effort to raise funds for a Christian college in Burma and an orphanage in Thailand – certainly not your run-of-the-mill drug trafficker background. Mr. Wah was a refugee from Burma who became a United States citizen more than ten years ago. Being an immigrant whose first language is not English, Eh Wah had a difficult time understanding the police and vice versa.

The police stopped Mr. Wah for a broken tail light on February 27, 2016, at 6:30pm. They questioned Ed Wah and eventually brought out a drug-sniffing dog who alerted the sheriff’s deputies of a potential concern. The officers only located Mr. Wah’s cash, which totaled to an amount of approximately $53,000. Most of the money was made up of ticket sales and donations to the college and orphanage. Other sources for the funds came from the band’s CD and souvenir sales. All in all, the entirety of the cash funds was acquired through legal and honest means.

Eh Wah was then escorted to the local police station for questioning, where he spent several more hours under interrogation. No matter what explanation he provided, officers refused to believe his story and concluded that the cash was the result of drug proceeds. The officers of Muskogee County did, however, release Mr. Wah at 12:30 am that evening. They did not charge Eh Wah with any crime but did retain all the cash they discovered in his vehicle earlier that day.

Two weeks later, the Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge filed a Notice of Seizure and Forfeiture to officially obtain the acquired money permanently. On April 5, 2016, the DA’s office then issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Wah based on an affidavit by the officer who stopped Eh Wah. The affidavit failed to provide any fact establishing that an actual crime was committed or that the cash was associated with drug activity.

On April 20, 2016, the Institute for Justice, who represented Eh Wah, formally filed a complaint against the state of Oklahoma. By April 25, 2016, District Attorney Loge informed Mr. Wah and his attorneys that his office was officially dropping all charges against Eh Wah as well as the civil forfeiture attempts to seize the acquired funds. DA Loge did not believe that the burden of proof in the case would be met. Today, Mr. Wah’s legal team received a check from the Muskogee County District Attorney’s office for the full amount of funds originally seized from Eh Wah.

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According to both FreedomWorks and the Institute for Justice, Oklahoma ranks very low, receiving a score of D-, respectively. Specifically, Oklahoma does not require a criminal conviction to forfeit property, it offers minimal protections for third-party property owners, and 100 percent of its forfeiture proceeds go back to law enforcement.

In Eh Wah’s instance, justice moved remarkably swiftly within an 8-day time-frame. However, asset forfeiture practice consistently tramples over Fifth and Fourteenth amendment by violating due process rights. American citizens shouldn’t be treated like criminals and have personal property stolen when there is no proof of a crime. For these reasons, it is vital to push forward necessary reforms and protect citizens’ basic rights.