This story was produced through a partnership between The Frontier and NewsOn6.
Though judicial assignments are supposed to be random, the same criminal judge has been assigned to hear more than half of the civil cases in which the sheriff’s office sought to seize cash and guns from citizens through an unclaimed property law, an investigation by The Frontier and NewsOn6 has found.
Tulsa District Court policies regarding judicial assignments and transfers were not followed in several of the cases, which involve cash, guns and other property seized by the sheriff’s office from hundreds of citizens.
Courthouse records show the sheriff’s office tried to ensure that most of the cases would be heard by District Judge James Caputo, a former deputy whose daughter works at the sheriff’s office. Though judges are supposed to be randomly assigned per courthouse policy, Caputo’s name was printed on the petitions filed by the Sheriff’s Office.
Caputo recently recused from hearing the manslaughter case against former reserve deputy Robert Bates following an investigation by The Frontier that revealed several apparent conflicts of interest. Caputo worked as a Tulsa County Sheriff’s deputy from 1993 through 1999, served as a reserve deputy in 2007 and 2008 and his daughter is a civilian employee with the sheriff’s office.
Caputo said he was merely responding to a request by former a presiding district judge, Carlos Chappelle, who asked him to handle the cases. However the current presiding judge, Rebecca Nightingale, said she was unaware of such a request.
The sheriff’s use of a state law intended to dispose of unclaimed property has raised questions from citizens who say they want their cash, guns and property returned.
Under the unclaimed property law, citizens have just 10 days to claim their property, including cash, and must prove they own it. In several cases, citizens who showed up for a court hearing this week were told they lacked proof that they owned the cash or property in question. Some had been held by the sheriff’s office for 10 years.
The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office sought 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.”
An attorney representing 14 people with claims said he believes the sheriff’s office is using the wrong law to keep money and property taken from citizens during arrests and searches since 2005.
Instead, the agency should be filing individual forfeiture cases, which carry a burden of proof that the cash or property was connected to criminal activity, said attorney Tom Mortensen.
Asset forfeiture is governed by Title 63 of Oklahoma statutes, under a section titled “Property subject to forfeiture.”
Despite a promise of transparency after taking over from former Sheriff Stanley Glanz, Undersheriff Rick Weigel has refused to answer questions about his agency’s use of the unclaimed property law.
Justin Green, a spokesman for Weigel, said Friday Weigel would not answer questions from The Frontier and NewsOn6 regarding the cases. The Sheriff’s Office has not supplied records showing how much revenue it received from unclaimed property cases.
An analysis by The Frontier shows that the sheriff’s office rarely filed unclaimed property cases in the past but has filed 11 such cases since July 2013.
Some of the court files reviewed by The Frontier raise questions about records kept regarding property seized by the sheriff’s office.
A July 2013 court filing for the disposal of property “whether stolen, embezzled or otherwise obtained” is missing an exhibit list that is supposed to contain the items being considered for seizure, along with the name and address of the each last known owner.
When asked where the exhibit list was for the case, a court clerk searched the file and computer system and said: “Sometimes they come in from the sheriff’s office without one.”
The filing states that notice was posted in three locations, all within the same block: the county courthouse, the city’s municipal courts building and the Tulsa City-County downtown library.
Several other files contain exhibit lists that only contain case numbers and property room numbers — no name and address for the last known owner of the property in question.
Of 11 cases reviewed by The Frontier and NewsOn6, Caputo has overseen five and intended to hear a sixth case, the most recently filed. In that case, the sheriff’s office is seeking to keep more than $170,000 in cash and hundreds of guns confiscated from more than 900 citizens.
While the petition labels the money and property as unclaimed or abandoned, every case discussed during a recent court hearing involved items confiscated by deputies during searches and arrests. Several people wrote letters asking for the return of their weapons, which had been taken by the sheriff’s office.
Some letters did request return of items stolen during burglaries, property the sheriff’s office may not have been able to match with an owner.
Nightingale said she recently discovered that Caputo, a criminal judge, had somehow wound up with the unclaimed property case filed in September. The courthouse randomly assigns criminal and civil cases to judges and the case had been assigned to District Judge Mary Fitzgerald.
However in that case, a note on the docket states: “Judge Caputo is hearing the disposition of certain property for the sheriff’s office.”
Tulsa District Court rules state: “Assignment of cases shall be by random computer function except in those cases required by statute or court rule to be assigned to specific judges or divisions of the court.” Neither of those exceptions appear to apply in the case of unclaimed property filings.
Cases moved without transfer orders
“That’s not the way it’s supposed to work so I fixed it” by sending the case back to Fitzgerald, Nightingale said.
In fact, the case was one of three that ended up in Caputo’s court but were actually assigned to other judges without an order transferring them. Court rules state that “any case that requires reassignment … shall be transferred by the assigned judge to the presiding judge.”
“The presiding judge shall reassign the case to the next available judge on the transfer list maintained by the presiding judge,” the rules state.
Court Administrator Vicki Cox, who normally signs transfer orders, said she had no record of such orders in the three cases transferred to Caputo. She said she did not know why the cases were transferred without orders.
Caputo said in 2013, someone from the sheriff’s office came to him, asking if he could help clear out overflow in the property room — cases in which the property owners couldn’t be found. He said Chappelle, then presiding judge, gave him permission to handle the sheriff’s unclaimed property cases.
“I’ve always tried to help out any of the judges that I can. All I know is Judge Chappelle asked if I would do it,” Caputo said.
“Notice was given to everybody. The hearings were held. People either showed up or didn’t show up and then I signed the appropriate documents either returning the property to the owners or signing the document turning it over to the sheriff’s office.”
Chappelle died June 28 and Nightingale has served as presiding judge since then. Caputo said he had no documentation of Chappelle’s request and declined to say who at the sheriff’s office had asked him to help.
When asked whether the cases should have been filed as individual forfeiture cases, Caputo abruptly ended the interview.
“You know what? We’re done,” he said.
Nightingale said she was not aware of any arrangement for Caputo to hear the unclaimed property cases to assist civil judges. She also said petitions for new cases shouldn’t have judges’ names already printed on them when filed, as the unclaimed property cases have.
“The system is supposed to randomly assign judges to prevent forum shopping,” she said.
Forum shopping occurs when parties to a case try to choose a judge they perceive to be more favorable.
When asked why Chappelle would choose a criminal judge to deal with such cases, Caputo said: “I can’t speak to Judge Chappelle’s motivation.”
“There was no function to be able to take care of what Judge Chappelle wanted to do. My understanding is none of it was going through any of the normal procedures,” he said.
However, Nightingale said the Tulsa Police Department and most suburban police agencies file similar cases to dispose of lost and unclaimed property.