Law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma continue to fight the War on Drugs, but it’s not solely for noble purposes.
For certain, illegal drugs are seized and bad guys are put in prison. Still, agencies like the Oklahoma City Police Department, the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office and the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drug Control know the War on Drugs is a profitable venture.
During the last five years, Oklahoma City’s police department has seized almost $5 million in cash and property connected to alleged drug crimes. In some cases, however, individuals were never charged or convicted but lost their money and property anyway thanks to the state’s strict civil asset forfeiture laws, OKC criminal defense attorney Doug Parr said.
As a result, OKC police have been able to purchase new undercover cop cars and high-tech surveillance equipment and obtain additional officer training, said Police Chief Bill Citty.
At the same time, Citty acknowledges drug cartels and dealers continue to have the upper hand.
“We have not won anything,” he said, referring to the War on Drugs. “We are still fighting that battle because the landscape of drugs changes. They (drug dealers) write it (cash and drug seizures) off as doing business.”
In the last five years, OKC police also have seized more than a ton of marijuana, more than 47,000 grams of cocaine, almost 10,000 grams of heroin, 75,689 grams of methamphetamine, nearly 50,000 grams of ecstasy and almost 19,000 grams of various pharmaceutical drugs, department records show.
The department’s best year in confiscating cash was in fiscal year 2013, which ended June 30. During that time, OKC police received $1,473,975 in asset forfeiture revenue. The department currently has $4.84 million in its asset forfeiture account, according to police records.
“Most of the money we seized comes from investigation of dope houses,” Citty said. “Very few cases in our department involve cash that is seized from a vehicle stop and the person has a large sum of money on them.”
But according to two OKC criminal defense attorneys and the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, police agencies use the asset forfeiture laws more as a revenue generator than a crime-fighting tool.
“Oklahoma law is designed to promote forfeitures,” said local defense attorney Chad Moody, who bills himself as The Drug Lawyer. “If even so much as a marijuana seed is found in a vehicle, it becomes the burden of the owner to prove that that vehicle and its contents are not products and instrumentalities of the drug trade.”
Citty disagrees. “Asset forfeiture is another level of punishment for those involved in criminal activity,” he said. “Usually, when someone is carrying a large amount of money, there’s other corroborating circumstances that go along with it.”
Moody takes it a step further with the notion that asset forfeiture cases are law enforcement’s way of enhancing economic development.
“Asset forfeitures create an incestuous relationship between police and judges,” he said.
The Institute for Justice, in its 2010 report Policing for Profits, described Oklahoma’s civil asset forfeiture laws as “terrible.” According to the report, Oklahoma’s statute “gives law enforcement significant financial incentives to seize property.”
The report’s authors gave Oklahoma a “D” letter grade for its asset forfeiture laws. In Oklahoma, owners are presumed guilty and must contest forfeiture by proving they did not know property (including cash) was used illegally, according to the report.
“Worse, law enforcement receives 100 percent of the proceeds from civil forfeiture,” the report’s authors wrote.
The report also included recommendations that forfeiture revenue be placed in a neutral fund and that the money be tracked and reported so law enforcement is held publicly accountable.
Welcome to Oklahoma
Parr believes OKC metro drug interdiction officers target vehicles from other states in their quest to fight the drug dealers. However, in many cases, innocent people are caught in the middle.
“Say, for instance, you’re driving through Oklahoma and you have $5,000 in cash. You get stopped and the officer finds out you have that money. More than likely, it’s going to be taken and trying to get it back will be economically unfeasible,” he said.
Fighting asset forfeiture actions requires out-of-state residents to hire an attorney, take off work for court proceedings and spend travel money.
“At that point, you’ve spent the money you were trying to get back, and that’s what they (law enforcement) bank on,” Parr said.
Oklahoma City has proven to be a haven for drug interdiction officers because of three significant interstates: Interstate 35, Interstate 40 and Interstate 44.
Parr’s law firm conducted a study beginning in January 2000 and ending in October 2004. During that time, researchers discovered that $12.8 million was seized, forfeited and distributed to metro agencies, Parr said.
OKC police received $6 million, the Oklahoma County DA’s office was awarded almost $4 million and the remainder was split between the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office and the Central Oklahoma Metropolitan Interdiction Team (COMIT).
More than 80 percent of all cash seizures during the study were under $10,000.
“Almost all were from out-of-state cars. Basically, it’s a shakedown of all out-of-state vehicles,” Parr said.