IJ recently scored a major victory on behalf of a Burmese Christian rock band that had $53,000 seized by Oklahoma police using civil forfeiture. Haven’t heard of this case before? That may be because a mere six hours after we announced the lawsuit on April 25, the Muskogee County District Attorney dropped the case like a hot potato and gave the band back its money that very same day.
The facts of the case are just as remarkable as the speed of the victory. Muskogee law enforcement seized and tried to forfeit over $53,000, most of which had been raised for charities (including an orphanage for refugees) in Burma and Thailand by the Klo & Kweh Music Team, a Burmese Christian rock band on a U.S. tour. Yes, that’s right: The Muskogee District Attorney actually tried to take money from orphans. And if their money is not safe from forfeiture abuse, then nobody’s money is safe.
That is why IJ challenged this forfeiture on behalf of the band, its U.S. tour manager—a former Karen refugee and naturalized U.S. citizen named Eh Wah—the Thai orphanage whose donations were seized, and the Karen Christian Church in Omaha, Nebraska, which sponsored the tour. (The Karen people are an ethnic minority of Burma and Thailand.)
The trouble for Eh Wah and the band began in late February, when Eh Wah was stopped by the Muskogee County Sheriff’s Office for a broken brake light while driving home to Dallas during a tour break. During the stop, a drug dog deputies called to the scene alerted on Eh Wah’s car, supposedly indicating the presence of drugs. Deputies searched the car and found over $53,000 in cash, but no drugs or drug paraphernalia.
Deputies interrogated Eh Wah for over six hours about the cash. He tried to explain that it was mostly proceeds from ticket sales and church offerings raised at concerts (the band had played in 19 U.S. cities), as well as some direct donations to the orphanage, and personal money for himself and a band member. Although the deputies looked at numerous concert pictures on Eh Wah’s phone, visited the band’s website and even called the band’s leader to confirm his story, they said they did not believe Eh Wah. He was released after midnight with a warning for the brake light, but deputies kept all of the cash.
The Muskogee DA not only filed papers to forfeit the cash but also issued a felony warrant for Eh Wah’s arrest, charging him with acquiring proceeds from drug activity even though officers had found no drugs. The affidavit supporting the warrant was just six sentences long and didn’t describe any illegal behavior. This was a blatant attempt to strong-arm Eh Wah into surrendering the cash as part of a plea deal.
When this bogus criminal charge was filed, we immediately reached out to our Human Action Network and found a local Oklahoma criminal defense attorney who could represent Eh Wah against the criminal charge. Then we set to work preparing to file the forfeiture case in just two weeks.
Among other challenges, we had to find notaries for our clients in Burma and rural Thailand during the Burmese Water Festival and New Year’s celebration, which essentially shut down the country for a week and a half. Meanwhile, our media and production teams worked at breakneck speed to line up an exclusive with The Washington Post and create a compelling video telling Eh Wah’s story.
While the victims in this case were certainly atypical, this sort of forfeiture story is, unfortunately, all too common in Oklahoma, which has some of the worst civil forfeiture laws in the country. According to IJ’s report Policing for Profit, Oklahoma law enforcement can keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeitures. Between 2000 and 2014, law enforcement seized $99 million, the vast majority—72 percent—derived from cash forfeitures.
Unfortunately, a bill that would have reformed Oklahoma’s civil forfeiture laws was defeated earlier this year by a strong law enforcement lobby, which claimed there was no need for reform in Oklahoma.
In the end, this case was truly done the IJ Way and produced amazingly fast results. By moving quickly and bringing facts to light, we were able to deliver swift justice to our deserving clients. Not all government officials will see the writing on the wall and admit defeat, which is why IJ will continue to increase its efforts to fight civil forfeiture in the courts of law, in the court of public opinion and in legislatures. Hopefully, this case will be a catalyst for renewed forfeiture reform in Oklahoma and across the U.S.
Dan Alban is an IJ attorney.