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Majority of Oklahomans support civil asset reform, SoonerPoll shows

Sarah Hussain / Red Dirt Report
Sen. Kyle Loveless.
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866-901-7559 is the new hotline number to report abuses when property is illegally taken by law enforcement.

OKLAHOMA CITY – Nearly 70 percent of Oklahomans believe people who have had property confiscated by police without being convicted of a crime has been denied their constitutional rights, according to the latest SoonerPoll released Thursday.

Civil asset forfeiture has been a sparkplug issue since state Sen. Kyle Loveless introduced legislation in May that would significantly reform the system and require a criminal conviction before law enforcement agencies could keep property or cash typically seized in a traffic stop. Currently, state law allows police agencies to retain confiscated cars, money, homes or other property connected to suspected criminal activity even if a criminal conviction is not achieved. A judge must approve the asset forfeiture petition.

In many cases, innocent owners do not fight the forfeiture because of the expenses required to hire an attorney and take time off from work, Loveless said.

“The average forfeiture case is somewhere between $1,000 and $1,200 and it costs a lot more than that to hire an attorney to fight it, so most innocent people will just lose their money and not fight it. But that’s not right. We, as a country, have had unjust laws before such as Jim Crow laws. It’s time to correct this one and protect our innocent citizens.”

In other cases, police seize the property from known or suspected drug dealers, but allow them to leave without being arrested, the lawmaker said.

Loveless’ measure is opposed by most law enforcement agencies across the state because the money and property that is ultimately sold provide a major source of revenue in drug interdiction efforts.

The SoonerPoll showed results varied only slightly based on party affiliation with 58 percent of Republicans strongly supporting the legislation compared to 53 percent of Democrats and half of all Independents. Strong support was also seen among liberals and conservatives.

“Oklahomans believe that law enforcement in the state, which they have a very favorable opinion, is just on the wrong side of this issue,” said SoonerPoll Chief Executive Officer Bill Shapard.

During a state Capitol news conference Thursday, Shapard said 81 percent of the same poll respondents had a favorable opinion of their local police or sheriff’s department.

The poll showed 78 percent believe it is unconstitutional and un-American for law enforcement agencies to keep confiscated property without a criminal conviction. In addition, 68 percent agreed that the current system encourages cash-strapped counties to increase asset forfeiture cases so they can pay their bills.

A majority of the respondents disagreed the proposed reforms would hamper law enforcement’s ability to fight the war on drugs and cartels.

According to Shapard, the polls results showed no significant differences among the opinions of rural and urban voters, men and women or those within different age groups.

Loveless’ bill also would require law enforcement officials to connect the confiscated property to a specific crime and allow innocent victims to regain their property and cash in a timely manner.

Loveless, a small business owner, said one of his main goals is to help “mom-and-pop operations that deal in cash.

“They don’t need to be penalized because they deal in cash,” he said. “It’s quite likely that some small business owners will carry $1,000 or $5,000 with them because they have a cash business.”

David Blatt, of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said civil asset forfeiture hits low-income and ethnic minorities hardest especillay those that do not use banks.

“Eight percent of all U.S. households don’t have a bank account,” he said. “Minorities are likely to be two to three times higher than that.”

Blatt estimated that 38 percent of all Latinos in Oklahoma do not use banks.

“The people most likely to be stopped by police are the ones who most likely don’t have a bank account,” he said.

Trent England, of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, said the nation’s founders “saw no contradiction between law and order and laws that provided checks and balances on those same people. We know there are innocent people who lose their property.”

Part of Loveless’ plan is to introduce a Civil Asset Forfeiture Hotline that people can use to report abuses of the state law. The hotline telephone number is 866-901-7559. The hotline has been endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, the OKPolicy Institute and the Oklahoma Second Amendment Association.

ACLU’s Legal Director Brady Henderson, a former Cleveland County prosecutor, said the U.S. Constitution provides a needed checks and balances on law enforcement to protect individual liberties and fairness.

“Law enforcement needs our trust and when we don’t have checks and balances that erodes that trust,” he said. “We’re not endangering the system. We’re making it better.”

Henderson contends the civil asset forfeiture laws create a “deck stacked against citizens who value freedoms and fairness. We need laws that protect our citizens, not laws that provide a revenue stream” for law enforcement.

Loveless was insistent that his proposed legislation is not a “war on cops,” but rather an attempt to reform a system that has moved past its original intent.

In some instances across the state, law enforcement agencies use asset forfeiture as a means to pay officer salaries.

“The permanent taking of someone’s property is unconstitutional and is not a budgeting issue,” Loveless said. “When it’s used for salaries, it makes these agencies believe they have to meet a quota.”

The poll was conducted from Sept. 1-15 with 403 likely Oklahoma voters selected at random statewide. The study has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.88 percent. The sample reflected the traditional demographical profile of the Oklahoma likely voter with roughly half of respondents identifying as conservative and attending religious services once or more per week.

Here is the link to the poll.

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