Police officers have the authority to do a lot of different things. They can pull you over, ask for your license, registration and proof of insurance, and even search your belongings under certain circumstances. They can also take your property through a process known as civil asset forfeiture. An NBC News report about an Oklahoma case shows just how powerful civil asset forfeiture can be.
What is civil asset forfeiture?
Civil asset forfeiture is the process in which police take property they suspect was involved in a crime. This could be something obvious, such as when police take a murder weapon from a crime scene. But it could also be something surprising, such as your vehicle, cash or other belongings. As long as they believe the property was involved in a crime, police can take it.
What is important to understand about civil asset forfeiture is that police can take your property even if they don’t charge you with a crime. In some cases, they may even keep or sell your property even though they never accuse you of doing anything wrong. And, in many cases, once police take your property, it’s very hard to get it back.
What happened in the Oklahoma case?
This is the dark side of civil asset forfeiture that two businessmen from New Mexico are learning about right now. The two men traveled to Oklahoma to purchase a 10-acre plot of farmland in cash. According to the men, they had just over $140,000 in cash on them to close on the purchase.
But, on the way to their hotel, police pulled the men over. After telling the police about the cash that they had on them, the officer seized it, purportedly believing that the cash was “illegal activity.” After interrogating them for hours, police released the men without any criminal charges.
But, even though neither man faced any criminal charges, police still kept their money. According to court filings by the district attorney’s office, the police kept the money based on their belief that someone would use it in illegal drug transactions.
“They kept saying, ‘This is illegal money,’” one of the men said. “I said, ‘Okay, prove it. We didn’t do anything illegal.’” Unfortunately, that’s not how civil asset forfeiture laws work. Instead, the burden is on the men to prove that they didn’t intend to do something illegal.
“Now I have to prove I’m innocent, and they are the ones who illegally took my money and basically stole some of my money, too,” the man continued. And he’s right. Under Oklahoma law, the police can simply take their money and refuse to give it back until they win in court.
Making matters worse, police only claimed they took $131,500. According to the men, that’s $10,000 less than what they had. But that doesn’t matter to the police. It’s the men that have to prove how much they had and why. Otherwise, the local police department gets a little extra in their budget.
The process of civil asset forfeiture is extraordinary, and this Oklahoma case shows why. Police can literally take your property if they suspect it was involved in “illegal activity” even if they never charge anyone with a crime.