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Lawmakers puzzled by Sykes' decision to move interim study away from Capitol

Tim Farley / Red Dirt Report
Canadian County Sheriff Randall Edwards.
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Hearing will focus on proposal to revamp how law enforcement seize property, cash from citizens

OKLAHOMA CITY – Moving an interim study on a controversial civil asset forfeiture bill to Tulsa has lawmakers puzzled, but Senate Judiciary Chairman Anthony Sykes isn’t talking about it.

The hearing will be held 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1 at the Tulsa Police Academy, 90 miles from the state Capitol where most interim studies are conducted.

The civil asset forfeiture measure introduced by Sen. Kyle Loveless has sparked immense debate among lawmakers and law enforcement officials, including Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel, Canadian County Sheriff Randall Edwards and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater. All three have criticized Loveless and his reasons for the bill.

Neither Sykes (R-Moore) nor Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman (R-Sapulpa) returned phone calls to Red Dirt Report for comment.

Moving the interim study may cause some logistical problems for expert witnesses who already have made travel plans. In addition, most hearing rooms at the Capitol have Internet connections that allow live broadcasts, but that may not be possible at the Tulsa police academy, two state officials said.

Despite the mysterious move to Tulsa, Loveless is happy the issue is getting heard in public. At the same time, he’s worried that some citizens will find it difficult to make the drive to Tulsa.

“I’m just glad Sen. Sykes is willing to have the study,” the bill’s author said. “I’m willing to do it at the Capitol or go to Tulsa. I’m open to whatever the chairman decides. Yet, I’m also concerned that members of the public might find it burdensome to make the drive or have the time.”

Whetsel thinks it’s “strange” the hearing was moved to Tulsa.

“It’s kind of unusual, but it won’t necessarily keep me from going. I’ll have to look at my schedule,” he said.

Canadian County Undersheriff Chris West said he and Edwards plan to travel wherever the hearing is held.

Senate judiciary committee member David Holt (R-Bethany) said he telephoned Sykes to get an explanation about the field hearing in Tulsa, but has not received a response from the chairman.

Conducting the hearing in Tulsa causes a concern with openness and transparency, Holt said.

“It certainly makes it more difficult for the media, the committee members, staff and the public,” he said. “I really don’t understand why he (Sykes) is doing this since most of the members are from the metro area, but I want to be fair to him and that’s why I sought him out.”

Seven of the 10 committee members live in the Oklahoma City metro area.

Sen. A.J. Griffin (R-Guthrie) told The McCarville Report she’s puzzled about Sykes’ decision.

“The civil asset forfeiture interim study is extremely important and I am anxious to explore the issue with my colleagues. However, I am a bit perplexed that chairman Sykes determined the best location for the study was a law enforcement agency. I plan to attend and hope that we fully investigate the matter,” she said.

Judiciary committee Vice Chairman Brian Crain (R-Tulsa) said he was asked by Sykes about moving the hearing and agreed it would be a good idea.

“The impression I was left with was he was interested in hearing what people outside the Capitol and away from the Oklahoma City metro area had to say,” he said.

The idea that citizens would not be able to watch the hearing on a live broadcast “never crossed my mind,” Crain said.

“I’d be happy to go to Oklahoma City or if they went to Altus I’d go to Altus,” he said.

Proposal details

Several Oklahoma City area law enforcement officials lashed out at Loveless after he introduced the proposal, which would restrict the way police agencies are allowed to seize property and cash. Senate Bill 838 would prevent law enforcement from confiscating property unless that person is convicted of a crime. Typically, most civil asset forfeiture cases involve drugs, cash and other property purchased with money reportedly linked to the drug trade.

However, Loveless said there are too many other cases when police seize cash and property from innocent people. Under current law, police only need to establish a suspicion that the property was involved in illegal activity before taking it. At this time, police can seize property even if the owner is not arrested or charged with a crime.

That scenario has left Loveless and the bill’s supporters frustrated over a police power that goes too far and fails a critical constitutional test.

“The issue is that the owner is presumed guilty until they can prove their innocence,” Loveless said. “In America, we are proud of our tradition of innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with civil asset forfeiture.”

For years, criminal defense attorneys have complained that many innocent people have had their property seized because the burden of proof on police agencies is so low. SB 838 would increase that burden from a “preponderance of the evidence” to a “clear and convincing” standard. The bill also would eliminate the requirement that owners prove the property was not used in the commission of a crime.

Those proposed changes left Whetsel and Edwards infuriated, causing Edwards to remark in an email, “This is without a doubt the single worst, most damning, most asinine and devastating bill I have ever seen for this state and local law enforcement. This bill, if passed, will set the war on drugs back 20 years and will literally shut down the drug interdiction in this state.”

Whetsel claims abuse of the asset forfeiture law by police officers are “few and far between.”

“There is no need for a new law,” he said. “Anytime anyone has not followed the law those cases have been thrown out of court.”

Part of SB 838, also known as the Personal Asset Protection Act, would place legally seized assets into the state’s general fund. Currently, most of the seized property and cash are returned to local law enforcement agencies for drug interdiction programs.

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Tim Farley

Tim Farley is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years of experience, including...

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