Two Oklahoma Sheriffs held a question and answer session at the High Noon Club on Monday in an attempt to fight back against civil asset forfeiture reform. Sheriff Edwards of Canadian County, and his Under Sheriff, claimed that the reform bill introduced by State Senator Kyle Loveless is an attack on law enforcement and would limit their department’s ability to fight crime.
The legislation that Senator Loveless is proposing would alter the way law enforcement seizes assets from suspected criminals. His reform is not a wholesale assault on police – as the sheriff suggests – but instead an effort to restore the constitutional rights of Oklahomans.
The reform package would require law enforcement to file a conviction before assets are forfeited. Currently, the assets of many individuals who are never convicted of a crime get forfeited. It is often the responsibility of citizens who are not found guilty of any crime to go through a difficult legal process to get their assets back.
In Sheriff Edwards’ own words “whether or not [citizens] refute charges is beyond our control”. This means it is incumbent on innocent citizens to demand their money and property back from law enforcement. Instead, the burden of proof should be on law enforcement to determine if the assets were connected to a crime in the first place.
After a concerned individual recounted his unfortunate encounters with Oklahoma police, Sheriff Edwards dismissed him as having “bad luck.” It seems that Oklahomans must count on “luck” not to be improperly targeted for their property.
SB 838, the bill in question, would also transfer the assets seized to the State General Fund and away from police department budgets. Edwards claimed that this money was critical to combatting drugs and other public health risks. However, a federal audit of Oklahoma law enforcement agencies show that large sums of seized assets are returned to agency personnel in the form of salaries and benefits, for administrative tasks, and non-law enforcement purposes.
Sheriff Edwards said that his department used $400,000 of seized assets – which he states are part of “[his] cash funds” – to support operations last year. Additionally, as Senator Loveless notes, it introduces a profit motive into law enforcement. Finally, since the departments are using money that they generate themselves, they face little budgeting oversight by the state legislature. Having the seized assets go to the State General Fund allows for more predictable and responsible budgets, and removes the profit motive from local police officers so that they can better protect the peace without worrying about raising revenue.
Sheriff Edwards previously wrote a letter saying “This is without a doubt the single worst, most damning, most asinine and devastating bill I have ever seen for this State and local law enforcement.” He questioned whether Senator Loveless understood the importance of police officers in Oklahoman communities. Supporters of this reform clearly understand and appreciate the importance of law enforcement, but Oklahomans deserve to know that their property will not be taken without due process.