Sheriff’s Office seizes citizens’ cash, guns through unclaimed property law

Nearly 300 of the cases involved cash, totaling at least $170,000 taken from citizens, analysis by The Frontier shows.

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Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 5.19.13 PMThe Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office has been allowed to seize cash and guns from nearly 1,000 citizens during searches and arrests under a law designed for dealing with unclaimed property rather than using the state’s forfeiture process, an investigation by The Frontier has found.

The cash, weapons and other property along with their “last known owners” were listed on an 81-page court filing by the sheriff’s office on Sept. 23. The sheriff’s office seized the items during arrests and investigations since 2005 but did not file individual civil forfeiture actions that would have allowed the agency to confiscate them in some cases.

Instead, the Sheriff’s Office asked a judge to order the items “forfeited to the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office for official use, sale, donation or destruction” under a law dealing with lost property in the sheriff’s possession. Nearly 300 of the cases involved cash, totaling at least $170,000 taken from citizens, analysis by The Frontier shows.

The filing states that the sheriff “is in possession of certain stolen, embezzled, lost, abandoned or otherwise obtained personal property” and “has exercised due diligence to locate the last known owners of each and every item.”

About a dozen people showed up to a hearing in Tulsa County District Court on Wednesday and asked District Judge Mary Fitzgerald to return their money and weapons. In most cases, those who attended the hearing had not been charged with a crime and in others, charges had been dropped or expunged.

Fitzgerald questioned each person about how the Sheriff’s Office came into possession of the property and whether drugs or other crimes were involved. The state law on which the Sheriff’s Office is relying makes no mention of such a litmus test in determining whether claimants can have their property returned.

During the hearing, Fitzgerald agreed to return property to a handful of people and denied other requests because the claimants could not prove ownership.

District Judge Mary Fitzgerald heard the sheriff's request to keep cash and guns seized from citizens.
District Judge Mary Fitzgerald heard the sheriff’s request to keep cash and guns seized from citizens.

One woman said the $600 she was seeking was money she received from H&R Block after filing her tax return. Another said she had given her boyfriend cash to go Christmas shopping and the money was taken by the Sheriff’s Office when he was arrested.

More than 900 people who were listed as owners of the cash and weapons were either not aware of the hearing or chose not to contest the seizures.

Attorney Thomas Mortensen attended the hearing on behalf of 14 people on the sheriff’s “unclaimed personal property” list. He repeatedly objected to the process, saying those making claims had not received a hearing where evidence of a crime was presented.

“The Sheriff’s Office is saying that it came into possession of this money because it was lost or abandoned. It’s not,” he told Fitzgerald.

Meredith Baker, general counsel for the Sheriff’s Office, asked whether a continuance was needed to discuss the issue.

Fitzgerald said a hearing had already occurred in November and that Wednesday’s hearing was a continuance of that to give people more time to gather proof of ownership. She called Mortensen’s position “highly unusual.”

“I don’t appreciate you counsel saying there was no hearing. … I allowed all of them to come up here and talk to me.”

Assistant District Attorney Jimmy Dunn briefly attended the hearing, saying he wasn’t familiar with the details of the case but wanted to represent the county’s interests. After talking with Mortensen, Dunn withdrew his appearance, saying: “I’ve never given any advice to the sheriff’s office as to the disposition of this property.”

At the end of the hearing, Fitzgerald said her order allowing the Sheriff’s Office to keep the remaining cash and property would be issued “very soon.”

After the hearing, Mortensen said he believes the Sheriff’s Office is relying on the wrong state law to seize the cash and weapons. Asset forfeiture is governed by Title 63 of Oklahoma statutes, under a section titled “Property subject to forfeiture.”

“Forfeiture actions typically involve due process and the burden would be on the state” to show the cash and weapons were connected to drug or other criminal activity, he said.

“This is a way to do an end around or to convert funds for their own use,” Mortensen said.

Several people wrote letters to the court seeking return of their money and property.

Gilbert Denny wrote that the Sheriff’s Office confiscated his .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver after deputies conducted a “wellness check” on his teen-age daughter due to drinking at the home. Denny’s letter states he has a concealed carry license, a lifetime hunting license and that his driver’s license was “in good standing.”

“The weapon in question has never been involved in a crime. I would like my pistol returned to me if anything for self protection,” Denny stated.

The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office sought Wednesday to take possession of the cash, weapons and other property in question through a provision of Title 22 that governs “Unclaimed property or money in Sheriff’s possession.”

This law allows the sheriff’s office to use the money or any funds received from the sale of such property “for the purchase of equipment, materials or supplies that may be used in crime prevention, training or programming.”

The Frontier requested comment from the Sheriff’s Office Wednesday but did not receive a response. Fitzgerald declined a request for an interview.

The seizing of property through forfeiture laws is also controversial nationally and in Oklahoma. Under current Oklahoma law, the process does not require the owner to be convicted or charged with a crime for the property to be forfeited.

This past fall, a group of Oklahoma politicians and policy groups called for reforms to the state’s forfeiture laws. They cited a poll sponsored by the Oklahoma Policy Institute and Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs that showed a bipartisan majority of Oklahomans favored reforming civil asset forfeiture laws to allow law enforcement to keep confiscated property only in cases where someone is convicted of a crime.

Mortensen said he plans to appeal Fitzgerald’s ruling to the state Supreme Court and possibly file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of those whose cash, weapons and other property were seized by the Sheriff’s Office.

Though court cases are supposed to be assigned randomly to judges, records call into question whether that occurred.

Court records show Fitzgerald was originally assigned to hear the case when it was filed Sept. 23 but on the same day, a note on the docket states: “Judge Caputo is hearing the disposition of certain property for the sheriff’s office.”

On Nov. 24, the day Caputo was to hear the case, a sign outside his courtroom stated the case was being heard in Fitzgerald’s courtroom. She said Wednesday that the case had been assigned to Caputo “by mistake.”

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Ziva Branstetter

Editor in Chief / Staff Writer

Ziva maintains she was always too nosy to be anything other than a reporter. Though she's on a new adventure with The Frontier, she spent more than 25 years in the newspaper business, making politicians nervous and making sure readers got the truth. Contact: ziva@readfrontier.com or 918-520-0406.
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