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Civil asset forfeiture reform alive, but just barely

Sarah Hussain / Red Dirt Report
State Sen. Kyle Loveless (R-Oklahoma City) is a critic of civil asset forfeiture.
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Senator wants to amend existing bill with three key reforms

OKLAHOMA CITY – State Sen. Kyle Loveless hasn’t given up on civil asset forfeiture reform, but his hopes for passing significant changes to the potentially-corrupt system aren’t as bright as they once were.

The bill he introduced this legislative session was never discussed or brought up in the Senate Public Safety committee. That decision was made by committee chairman Sen. Anthony Sykes, who declined to answer questions and has never returned phone calls for comment.

As a result, Senate Bill 1189 is dead.

Still, Loveless is meeting with law enforcement officials and other lawmakers to determine if amendments can be made to another bill still under consideration.

In a nutshell, civil asset forfeiture is a legal mechanism that allows law enforcement to take and keep property it claims is connected to illegal activity without charging the property owner with a crime.

Critics of the system contend law enforcement officials routinely are violating Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution with illegal searches and seizures and the forfeiture of due process rights.

In an interview Friday with Red Dirt Report, Loveless said he may amend a proposal by Sen. David Holt, which passed the public safety committee and is headed to the full Senate. Holt’s measure would allow people who successfully recover their property to be awarded money for legal fees and court costs. Holt said "has no interest" in amending his bill. "As a general rule, I am more interested in maintaining the integrity of my attorney's fees."

Loveless’ battle involves adding three key provisions from his failed measure onto Holt’s proposal, including a required criminal conviction of a person before law enforcement agencies can permanently seize cash or property. In addition, prosecutors would have 90 days to file criminal charges before property would be returned to its rightful owner. That process is currently used in white-collar crime cases, Loveless said.

Also, Loveless wants to keep a requirement that would require law enforcement agencies to prepare an annual report detailing how much money and property was seized, its total value and how it was spent by the various agencies. The report would be distributed to the state House of Representatives, Senate and the state auditor and inspector.

“We need to make sure agencies and departments don’t grow their departments by what they seize,” the senator said. “We need to know how much is being taken. That’s been a problem. There’s no way to tell how much is being seized by any agency.”

Loveless said Open Records requests made to law enforcement agencies nine months ago are still pending. The requests involve the amount of money and property various agencies have seized in recent years.

Money confiscated in civil asset forfeitures would still be retained by the agencies involved in the case, Loveless said.

Previously, Loveless wanted to create a new fund through the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office with a citizen oversight board. The 15-person board would have used the seized proceeds for grants to fund drug treatment, drug courts and law enforcement drug interdiction efforts.

Opponents to civil asset forfeiture reform didn’t like that idea or any others Loveless has proposed since May 2015 when he filed his original measure to reform the system. Most reform critics have been district attorneys, sheriffs and police chiefs, all of whom benefit from cases that involve the confiscation of money and property from motorists, some of whom are innocent of wrongdoing. Critics of the current system contend law enforcement agencies are “policing for profit” in an attempt to pad their budgets.

Loveless met with law enforcement officials earlier this week to find a compromise, but so far there has been no agreement, he said.

“These (three) amendments are serious reforms,” he said. “I’m OK with incremental change. It’s interesting because law enforcement has conceded there needs to be tweaks in the system. People shouldn’t have to go to court to get their property back.”

Oklahoma’s current system requires property owners to appear in court and prove the money or property was not used illegally before it’s returned. Oklahoma isn’t the only state with civil asset forfeiture reform on its agenda. Michigan, Florida, Texas and Maryland are currently considering proposals similar to the one submitted by Loveless.

The Florida Senate Judiciary committee voted in February to fix that state’s law civil asset forfeiture rules in favor of stricter protections for property rights and due process. Florida’s law enforcement agencies receive close to $20 million a year in confiscations through asset forfeiture, according to the website Americans for Tax Reform.

Under Senate Bill 1044, Florida law enforcement would be required to have a conviction of a crime and proof that the property in question was connected to the crime for assets to be seized.

In 2015, Montana and New Mexico passed laws requiring a criminal conviction before assets can be forfeited.

Oklahoma continually earns the worst grades in the nation (D-minus) for its forfeiture laws and practices, according to the Institute for Justice.

Updated at 4:45 p.m. March 1 to reflect comments from state Sen. David Holt.

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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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