Mary Fallin should get behind the effort to protect innocent Oklahomans from civil asset forfeiture

During a recent a recent discussion with Oklahoma journalists, Gov. Mary Fallin indicated that reforms were necessary to the Sooner State’s awful civil asset forfeiture laws. How far she is willing to go remains to be seen.

Fallin, a Republican, expressed a desire for justice reform ahead of Oklahoma’s 2015 legislative session. In her State of the State address, she emphasized the need for treatment for nonviolent offenders over incarceration. "Many of our current inmates are first-time, nonviolent offenders with drug abuse and alcohol problems. Many also have mental health issues they need treatment for," Fallin said in February. "For some of these offenders, long sentences in state penitentiaries increase their likelihood of escalated criminal behavior."

State lawmakers responded by passing the Justice Safety Valve Act, which allows judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below mandatory minimums, with strong bipartisan support in both chambers. Fallin signed the bill into law in early May.

But another equally important aspect to justice reform is addressing bad civil asset forfeiture laws that do not provide adequate protections for innocent property owners. According to a new report from FreedomWorks, Civil Asset Forfeiture: Grading the States, Oklahoma earns a "D-" for its current civil asset forfeiture laws. The government need only show a very low standard of proof to forfeit property. The property owner, who does not need to be charged with a crime, must prove that the seized items are innocent to get their property back.

Just as concerning, a perverse profit motive exists under Oklahoma’s current civil asset forfeiture laws. State and local law enforcement are allowed to keep 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeitures.

Hoping to restore the "presumption of innocence" in Oklahoma, State Sen. Kyle Loveless (R-Oklahoma City) introduced SB 838, the Personal Asset Protection Act. The bill is very similar to the comprehensive reforms signed into law in New Mexico in April.

SB 838, which was introduced near the end of the session to start a conversation on the need for reform, would require a criminal conviction before the government can begin forfeiture proceedings. It would also direct proceeds from forfeitures to the state’s general fund.

"The issue with the current law is that the owner is presumed guilty until they can prove their innocence," Loveless said in May. "In America, we are proud of our tradition of innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with civil asset forfeiture. Under current law, the state simply needs to establish a mere suspicion that the property is involved in illegal activity and the owner doesn’t have to be charged with a crime."

The effort has received praise in unexpected places. The editorial board of The Oklahoman, the largest daily paper in the Sooner State, gave Loveless a pat on the back for his efforts. "Changing our law to provide citizens a few more protections, as states such as Texas and New Mexico have done in recent years, is at the heart of this effort and is something the general public is likely to support," the editorial board explained. "This is a discussion well worth having — civilly, if possible."

For her part, Fallin agrees that Oklahoma’s civil asset forfeiture laws need reform. "Kyle [Loveless] had a valid point and we need to look at that,” she recently told reporters. “I am open to discussions with Kyle about his proposal. We certainly need to be fair."

The bill, as it currently exists, faces strong opposition from state and local law enforcement and some state lawmakers. Red Dirt Report notes, however, that one of Fallin’s aides believes she would veto SB 838, based on this opposition, if it reached her desk. Loveless plans to hold hearings on the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws and the need for reform, before the beginning of the 2016 session.

Fallin, though, should fully get behind the effort. Not only has New Mexico acted on reform, but other Republican-dominated state legislatures — including Michigan, Montana, and Pennsylvania — have either enacted comprehensive changes to their civil asset forfeiture laws or are currently considering bills to do so. Protecting the due process and property rights of innocent Oklahomans needs to be a top priority when lawmakers return to the capital next year.