Cops Steal $53,000 From Charity via Highway Robbery…er, Civil Asset Forfeiture

police car

Highway robbery – oops! – I mean, “civil asset forfeiture” is still alive and kicking in the United States, despite louder calls for reform and more prominent negative publicity surrounding the program.

Civil asset forfeiture is one of the most corrupt and vile programs that “law enforcement” agencies practice in America these days. It’s a process by which road pirates cops can seize your cash and property without convicting you with – or even charging you for – a crime. Police departments – and the Department of InJustice – love the program, because for them it means LOTS of free stuff.

In 2014, law enforcement officials stole more from Americans than criminals did: they robbed people of $4.5 BILLION (yes, that’s right – BILLION) in assets that year. That’s a BILLION (yes, a BILLION) more than burglars snagged from us.

In a press release, the civil asset forfeiture-fighting Institute for Justice announced that they have a new client:

Today, a group of Karen Christians from Burma and Thailand partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to challenge the civil forfeiture of more than $53,000 by the Muskogee, Okla., Sheriff’s Department. The seized assets included cash donations made to a Thai Orphanage and funds being raised for a nonprofit Christian school in Burma by the Klo & Kweh Music Team, a Burmese Christian rock band on a five-month U.S. tour.

The ordeal began on February 27, 2016 at 6:30 p.m., when Eh Wah – the volunteer American tour manager for the band – was pulled over in Muskogee, Oklahoma, for having a broken brake light.

Eh Wah’s encounter started as a routine traffic stop and quickly escalated into a nightmare, as all civil asset forfeiture cases do.

He managed the band’s finances, holding on to the cash proceeds it raised from ticket and merchandise sales at concerts. By the time Eh Wah was stopped in Oklahoma, the band had held concerts in 19 cities across the United States, raising money via tickets that sold for $10 to $20 each, reports The Washington Post.

During the stop, the sheriff’s deputy searched Eh Wah’s car and found more than $53,000 in cash, which was composed primarily of funds raised for charity during the tour, but which also included money from CD and souvenir sales, donations to a Thai orphanage, and personal money belonging to Eh Wah and a band member.

No evidence of drugs, paraphernalia, or any drug activity was found, but at some point, the armed thugs cops brought out a drug-sniffing dog, which alerted on the car. That’s when they found the cash, according to the deputy’s affidavit.

Drug-sniffing dogs are prone to giving false positives, but hey, who cares when there’s money and property to seize, right? Road pirates buy all kinds of fun stuff with the money they steal from everyday people, including sports cars, football tickets, entertainment, and vacations. Just imagine what the thugs who stole from Eh Wah could do with that $53,000!

The Muskogee County Sheriff’s Department interrogated Eh Wah for roughly six hours and released him after midnight, but kept all of the cash as supposed “drug proceeds.” They also issued a written warning for the broken tail light.

On March 11 – two weeks after Eh Wah was stopped – Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge filed a formal Notice of Seizure and Forfeiture seeking to keep the money for good.

And on April 5, the Muskogee County DA’s office issued an arrest warrant for Eh Wah based on a six-sentence affidavit by the deputy who stopped him. The affidavit does not allege a single fact establishing that Eh Wah committed any crime.

IJ Attorney Dan Alban said of the case:

Muskogee County law enforcement is using civil forfeiture to literally take money from orphans and refugees. You don’t have to be an orphanage, a church, or a Burmese Christian rock band to be a victim of civil forfeiture, but when even their money isn’t safe, no one’s money is safe from forfeiture abuse.

From IJ’s press release:

Eh Wah is totally innocent. Muskogee County has no evidence that the cash is associated with drug activity, other than the supposed alert of a drug dog on a car where no drugs were found.  The other “evidence” cited in the deputy’s affidavit is all completely innocuous: the presence of the cash in Eh Wah’s car, supposed “inconsistent stories” (which were likely due to Eh Wah’s imperfect English), and the fact that Eh Wah was “unable confirm that the money was his”—which was because much of it was not his personal money. The affidavit ignores the fact that, during his interrogation, Eh Wah explained how the funds were raised during the band’s tour of the U.S., showed the deputies the band’s website and photos from the band’s concerts, and even put them in touch with the band leader, Saw Marvellous Soe, who confirmed that the money was proceeds from the band’s U.S. tour.

Oh, by the way – earlier this month, an Oklahoma grand jury returned an indictment against Wagoner County Sheriff Bob Colbert and one of his deputies stemming from a civil asset forfeiture case, reports the Cato Institute. The indictment charges Sheriff Colbert and Deputy Jeffrey Gragg with extortion and bribery, among other things, stemming from the stop, arrest, and subsequent release of Torrell Wallace and a 17-year old passenger.

Oklahoma’s civil forfeiture laws are in dire need of reform, reports IJ:

Earning a D-, Oklahoma state law only requires the government to prove a property’s connection to a crime by a preponderance of the evidence in order to forfeit it. Individuals wishing to bring an innocent owner claim bear the burden of proving that they had nothing to do with the illegal use of their property. Oklahoma law enforcement agencies also get to keep up to 100 percent of the spoils of forfeiture.

Law enforcement agencies in the Sooner State are only required to maintain an inventory of seized and forfeited property, providing little to no transparency. However, the Institute for Justice submitted an Oklahoma Open Records Act request to the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council and obtained the judicial district fund accounting of cash forfeitures and proceeds from the sale of forfeited property for fiscal years 2000 to 2014. These data indicate that Oklahoma law enforcement agencies forfeited nearly $99 million during this period, the vast majority of which—72 percent—derived from cash forfeitures.

IJ Senior Attorney Matt Miller said:

In Oklahoma, civil forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to keep the money they seize, which encourages them to target ordinary citizens like Eh Wah and many others. Police and prosecutors cannot treat citizens like ATMs. It is not illegal to carry cash in this country, no matter who you are, where you are from, or how much money you have. This case is a clear-cut example of policing for profit.

The costs of going to court to try to get stolen property back is often more than the value of the items that were seized, and it can take months or even years to resolve cases. This prevents many victims of civil asset forfeiture from taking legal action.

Thankfully, IJ has taken on Eh Wah’s case pro bono, and is also representing the band, the Omaha church that sponsored the band members’ visas, the band’s audio technician, and the orphanage in Thailand in their challenge of the seizure of the money.

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Contributed by Lily Dane of The Daily Sheeple.

Lily Dane is a staff writer for The Daily Sheeple. Her goal is to help people to “Wake the Flock Up!”