Stacks of money taken from civil asset forfeiture stops. Courtesy News9

The amount of cash seized by and forfeited to Oklahoma law enforcement agencies last year nearly doubled from the prior year, according to data from the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council.

During Fiscal Year 2017, Oklahoma district attorneys were awarded more than $6.2 million in cash believed to be involved in the drug trade that was seized by law enforcement, the data shows. During the previous fiscal year, Oklahoma DAs were awarded $3.1 million in seized cash, according to the data.

When proceeds from property that was forfeited and sold during the previous fiscal year are added in, the total comes to $6.8 million — the highest amount generated from cash and property forfeitures since at least 2000, District Attorney Council data shows.

The total amount of money and property forfeited during fiscal year 2017 is likely much higher than the $6.8 million collected by Oklahoma district attorneys — that amount does not include totals for funds and property seized and forfeited separately by the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Public Safety, or through federal agencies. Those groups don’t report their seizure information to the District Attorneys Council.

In recent years, the civil asset forfeiture process has come under fire by a variety of groups with varying ideological bents, who warn that the process can too easily be turned into a “policing for profit” scheme, innocent people can have their cash seized by law enforcement and that oversight of seized funds and property is lacking.

Civil asset forfeiture cases and efforts in Oklahoma have also been highlighted as examples of how the system can be abused.

Law enforcement and prosecutors counter that the practice of seizing suspected drug money helps disrupt the finances of illegal drug outfits, helps to fund anti-drug operations without requiring taxpayers to contribute more and that the process is overseen by the judicial system to ensure fairness.

Under Oklahoma law, an officer may seize any property (including cash) if there is probable cause to believe that the property or cash has been or will be used to violate the state’s Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Act. Often, cash seizures occur by law enforcement during highway drug interdiction operations, and in some cases officers will seize large amounts of cash but let the individuals carrying the cash go without being arrested.

The seized cash or property is held by law enforcement until the district attorney files a civil case against the money or property, at which point the owner is notified that the forfeiture case is proceeding. The owner can choose to file a response in the case (which often requires the hiring of an attorney) to try get their property back. The case is decided based upon the preponderance of evidence by a judge and the property is either given back to the individual or turned over to the district attorney or state or federal agency.

The increase in forfeiture revenue from the previous year doesn’t appear to be the result of one large seizure by a single law enforcement agency or task force — 18 of the state’s 25 district attorneys who reported cash forfeitures also reported an increase in the amount of cash forfeited (two district attorneys reported no cash forfeitures).

Among the largest growth in cash forfeitures were:

  • District 23 (Lincoln and Pottawatomie counties), which went from around $5,000 in cash forfeited in fiscal year 2016 to more than $368,000.
  • District 4 (Canadian, Blaine, Kingfisher, Garfield and Grant counties), which went from around $102,000 in forfeited cash to $514,000 in the last fiscal year. District 4 had the second highest amount of cash forfeited in 2017 behind Oklahoma County and ahead of Tulsa County, which has nearly three times the population of all counties in DA District 4.
  • District 15 (Muskogee County), which went from around $34,000 in cash forfeitures to nearly $171,000 in fiscal year 2017.
  • District 7 (Oklahoma County), which consistently has the highest amount of cash forfeitures in the state grew in amount of cash forfeited by 125 percent — going from $1.3 million in 2016 to $2.9 million in cash forfeitures in 2017.
  • District 12 (Rogers, Mayes and Craig counties), which went from around $57,000 in cash forfeitures during 2016 to more than $279,000 in 2017.

Oklahoma’s district attorney districts. Courtesy, Oklahoma District Attorneys Council.

While the amount of cash forfeited increased, funds generated from sales of seized non-cash items declined between 2016 and 2017, from more than $705,000 to around $544,000, the District Attorney Council data shows.

Trent Baggett, executive coordinator for the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Council, said the exact reasons for the increase in forfeited cash aren’t clear, but that there can often be wide swings in forfeiture revenue from year to year and from district to district.

“It’s really kind of like going fishing,” Baggett said. “There are times when you go fishing and the fish jump in the boat with you. There are other times you go and you can’t get them to bite anything. That’s kind of what happens in regard to cases like this.”

Most of the seized money and cash from forfeited property was either distributed to other law enforcement agencies or were used by district attorneys to fund personnel, the cost of investigation and prosecution or operating expenses, according to the data. Often, funds will be used to help pay for district attorney drug task forces (or similar task forces), prosecutors filing drug charges, or other functions related to drug enforcement, Baggett said.

District attorneys varied in how they spent or distributed the funds. For example, the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office, which collected the highest amount of any district in the state, distributed about $1,600 to other agencies and about $1.4 million on personnel, prosecutions/investigations and rents, the data shows. Meanwhile, the second highest in forfeited funds, the District 4 District Attorney’s Office, distributed nearly three-quarters of the funds it collected to other agencies.

Like many agencies that rely on state appropriations, district attorneys offices have seen budget cuts in recent years. Districts with high-traffic interstate highways, such as Interstate 35 or Interstate 40, often have greater chances of intercepting large shipments of drug money, but even then it is difficult to build a reliable budget on projected forfeitures because they are unpredictable, Baggett said.

“It’s a roller coaster for some districts,” Baggett said. “You can’t, and you shouldn’t, base your budgets on betting that you’ll have a lot of forfeitures.”

District attorney civil asset forfeiture revenues and expenditures

The record amount of forfeiture revenue came during a time when some in the Legislature were seeking to add restrictions to the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws.

The move to change the process was led by now-former Sen. Kyle Loveless, who resigned from his senate seat in April after making a plea agreement to charges that he embezzled campaign funds. Loveless introduced bills that, among other things, would have required a criminal conviction before a defendant’s cash or property could be forfeited, increased the burden of proof required to obtain a forfeiture and direct forfeited funds to a state financial account.

Loveless’s forfeiture bills and public statements about forfeiture drew strong condemnation from law enforcement, district attorneys and some of his fellow members of the Legislature, and most of the forfeiture bills died in committee — with the exception of a bill authored by Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, that would allow owners of money or property who were able to win the forfeiture case in court to be paid attorneys fees and interest in the case.

Though the main proponent of changing the state’s forfeiture laws is no longer in the Legislature, Baggett said he is not sure whether there will be another effort at amending the law in the upcoming session.

“The only thing I’ve come to count on is that you can’t count on anything,” Baggett said. “I’ve not heard of anything. When I sit down and start reading bills, I know what I hope is going to happen, but you just don’t know.”