Oklahoma State Senator Anthony Sykes – Supporter of Highway Piracy

cafFor more than a year I have been reading about civil asset forfeiture and the need for reform.  Stories of law enforcement seizing assets, usually cash, from innocent people on the side of the road have become rampant as the media, many politicians, watchdog groups and the public make the case for reform.  I have written about civil asset forfeiture before, here and here, and the time has come for me to write about it again.

As a quick refresher for those unfamiliar with civil asset forfeiture, here’s how it works.  Civil asset forfeiture laws allows law enforcement to take your property without ever charging you with a crime by claiming the property seized is connected to criminal activity.  The most typical application of the law is to seize cash from someone during a traffic stop.  An officer who has pulled you over for a suspected traffic violation has the authority to make the decision all on his own that the cash in your vehicle wasn’t obtained legally and, therefore, he is going to take it away from you and send you on your way.  The cash is then spent by the officer’s law enforcement agency in furtherance of additional enforcement and seizure activity.  It’s a vicious circle, make seizures to pay for the personnel and equipment to do more seizures.

Sure, you do have the right to challenge the seizure in court, but attorneys aren’t cheap and most people would end up spending more fighting the seizure than they would get back if the challenge was successful.  Or, having to travel back to the state they were in at the time of the seizure would be inconvenient.

With no evidence that a crime was ever committed, no evidence that the cash or items seized was part of or obtained through criminal activity, civil asset forfeiture gives law enforcement the authority to take your property and force you to prove in court that the property seized was legally yours and was not obtained illegally.  Basically, your property is guilty until you prove it to be innocent.

So here we are, more than a year after civil asset forfeiture reform became the latest fad in state legislatures and many states have passed civil asset forfeiture reform, including Florida, Virginia, Wyoming, Nebraska, Mississippi, Minnesota, MontanaNew Mexico and New Hampshire. The reforms in these states and others differ in application but most have been changed to require a criminal conviction before property can be seized.  No more seizing the cash and sending the motorist on their way. No more highway robbery.

So why hasn’t Oklahoma passed civil asset forfeiture reform?  The answer is because of one man.

State Senator Anthony Sykes.

Here in Oklahoma, civil asset forfeiture reform was proposed and legislation submitted by Senator Kyle Loveless.  That legislation never saw the light of day, having never been discussed or brought up in committee.  The chairman of that committee, Senator Sykes, decided civil asset forfeiture reform was not worth the legislature’s time

Forbes – Last year, State Senator Kyle Loveless introduced a sweeping civil asset forfeiture reform bill. But instead of racing through the legislature as happened in New Mexico, it is stuck in a committee chaired by a legislator who wants to curry favor with the interest groups that are happy with the status quo—the law enforcement community.

The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Anthony Sykes, has declined to hold hearings on Senator Loveless’ bill. Sykes is quoted in this story as saying, “I have many issues to consider and I’m a person who doesn’t hear a lot of bills.” Senator Loveless wasn’t buying that. He responded, “Look at the bills he heard in committee. A handful of them died or were defeated on the Senate floor. As prominent as this bill was, you would have thought it would at least have seen the light of day in committee.”

The reason that Skyes refused to hold hearings is not surprising in the least.

Red Dirt Report – Capitol insiders told Red Dirt Report Sykes refused to hear the civil asset forfeiture bill because he wants to befriend law enforcement officials and collect their support for a run at the state Attorney General’s position in 2018.

If Sykes is soliciting support from law enforcement, he’s losing it with members of the Capitol press corps. Reporters who cover the Capitol beat have acknowledged Sykes tries to avoid them by exiting back doors or ducking into other rooms if he suspects the media wants an interview. Reporters also claim Sykes won’t return their phone calls for comment. But they’re not alone. Some of Sykes’ legislative colleagues claim he won’t return their telephone calls, either.

Meanwhile, just last month in Muskogee, Oklahoma…

Red Dirt Report – In a press release by the ACLU, Eh Wah, a U.S. citizen, was driving through Oklahoma to Dallas after touring with the Klo & Kweh Music Team, a Christian rock group, was stopped on Feb. 27 in Muskogee County.

Wah said the group had toured the United States to raise funds for a Christian college in Burma and an orphanage in Thailand.

According to a story published by The Washington Post, Muskogee County Sheriff deputies stopped Wah around 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 27. Deputies seized the cash Wah was carrying, then released him. Five weeks later, Wah was charged with the crime of “acquir(ing) proceeds from drug activity, a felony.”

“They did a dog ‘hit’,” Henderson said. “The drug dog may have hit on the amount of cash. Drug dogs sometimes hit on cash because, according to the Federal Reserve, 80 percent of U.S. currency has drug residue on it.”

A Muskogee County judge then signed off on an arrest warrant for Wah even though the District Attorney and Sheriff had not provided evidence required by law for a warrant to be issued Henderson said.

The Post reported that the cash – totaling more than $53,000 – was made up of proceeds from the rock group’s concerts and donated funds for a Thailand orphanage.

“Mr. Wah was stopped, and either they knew he had cash or were told to stop him,” said Henderson, citing a ghost system where tips are traded about who has cash or drugs. Henderson said both actions were unfounded.

“The statute they charged Mr. Wah with violating isn’t even a criminal statute and does not list any crimes,” he said.

Following significant media pressure, Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge dropped both the civil and criminal charges against Wah. Loge told the Post he had “looked at the case and met with the officers, and determined that we would not be able to meet the burden of proof in the criminal case and in the civil case.”

He said a check for the full amount of money taken from Wah would be mailed to Wah’s attorneys as soon as possible.

“They did not find cause that Wah was involved in illegal activity, only that he had a bunch of cash,” said Henderson. “It went off the rails at that point. Everyone involved except for the judge had a direct financial interest. The judge had an indirect financial interest, but everyone else would have had direct financial benefit.”

Apparently, Senator Sykes is just fine with incidents like this continuing to happen here in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma Watch – “I think it’s ironic that two days after my bill died in committee (Feb. 25), this guy’s property rights died on the side of the road,” Senator Loveless said. “I would like to say I’m surprised, but I’m not. We’ve shown for over a year that innocent people’s stuff get’s taken quite often.”

Senator Sykes apparently has no problem putting his own political ambitions ahead of the rights of Oklahomans.  What happened to Mr. Wah is an outrage; one that has happened to others and will continue to happen because Sykes doesn’t want reform.

After my last post on civil asset forfeiture, a prosecutor friend of mine told me I’m on the wrong side of this and that those who say there is abuse have agendas.  It appears to me that Senator Sykes is the one with an agenda; one that is self-serving.  The rights of Oklahomans don’t matter and, as far as Sykes is concerned, the highway piracy can continue if it helps him get elected Attorney General.

I wonder if Mr. Wah will vote for him.

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