Muskogee, Okla.—Today, a group of Karen Christians from Burma and Thailand partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to challenge the civil forfeiture of more than $53,000 by the Muskogee, Okla., Sheriff’s Department. The seized assets included cash donations made to a Thai Orphanage and funds being raised for a nonprofit Christian school in Burma by the Klo & Kweh Music Team, a Burmese Christian rock band on a five-month U.S. tour.
On February 27, 2016 at 6:30 p.m., Eh Wah—the volunteer American tour manager for the band—was pulled over in Muskogee, Okla., for having a broken brake light. What started as a routine traffic stop quickly spiraled into a nightmare.
During the stop, the sheriff’s deputy searched Eh Wah’s car and found more than $53,000 in cash, which was composed primarily of funds raised for charity during the tour, but which also included money from CD and souvenir sales, donations to a Thai orphanage, and personal money belonging to Eh Wah and a band member.
Although no drugs, drug paraphernalia, or any other evidence of drug activity was found, the deputy claims a drug dog alerted on the car. After interrogating Eh Wah for roughly six hours, the Muskogee County Sheriff’s Department released him after midnight, but kept all of the cash as supposed “drug proceeds.” They also issued a written warning for the broken tail light.
Two weeks later, on March 11, Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge filed a formal Notice of Seizure and Forfeiture seeking to keep the funds for good. And on April 5, the Muskogee County DA’s office issued an arrest warrant for Eh Wah based on a six-sentence affidavit by the deputy who stopped him. The affidavit does not allege a single fact establishing that Eh Wah committed any crime.
“Muskogee County law enforcement is using civil forfeiture to literally take money from orphans and refugees,” said IJ Attorney Dan Alban, who represents the group of claimants in the case. “You don’t have to be an orphanage, a church, or a Burmese Christian rock band to be a victim of civil forfeiture, but when even their money isn’t safe, no one’s money is safe from forfeiture abuse.”
Eh Wah is totally innocent. Muskogee County has no evidence that the cash is associated with drug activity, other than the supposed alert of a drug dog on a car where no drugs were found. The other “evidence” cited in the deputy’s affidavit is all completely innocuous: the presence of the cash in Eh Wah’s car, supposed “inconsistent stories” (which were likely due to Eh Wah’s imperfect English), and the fact that Eh Wah was “unable confirm that the money was his”—which was because much of it was not his personal money. The affidavit ignores the fact that, during his interrogation, Eh Wah explained how the funds were raised during the band’s tour of the U.S., showed the deputies the band’s website and photos from the band’s concerts, and even put them in touch with the band leader, Saw Marvellous Soe, who confirmed that the money was proceeds from the band’s U.S. tour.
“In Oklahoma, civil forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to keep the money they seize, which encourages them to target ordinary citizens like Eh Wah and many others,” said IJ Senior Attorney Matt Miller. “Police and prosecutors cannot treat citizens like ATMs. It is not illegal to carry cash in this country, no matter who you are, where you are from, or how much money you have. This case is a clear-cut example of policing for profit.”
“Eh Wah has done nothing wrong,” added Alban. “The criminal charge filed against him is completely bogus. It is an illegitimate attempt to strong-arm Eh Wah into giving up the money in a plea deal, rather than fight this obvious injustice.”
Eh Wah was born in Burma, and after fleeing the country’s civil war, spent 12 years in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border. He immigrated to the United States in 1997 and later became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He is an active member of a Karen Christian church in Dallas, Texas.
Eh Wah, who has a background in music, agreed to be the volunteer manager of the U.S. tour of the Klo & Kweh Music Team—a nine-person Christian rock band from Burma led by Saw Marvellous Soe (his real name). They are celebrities in Burma and in Karen Christian diaspora communities around the world. For their 2015-2016 U.S. tour, the band was sponsored by the Karen Christian Revival Church in Omaha, Nebraska, which is also a claimant in the forfeiture case.
The band performed at dozens of concerts and church services across the U.S. to raise money for the Dr. T. Thanbyar Christian Institute, a nonprofit Christian liberal arts education institution in Burma. During the tour, Karen Christian churches sold tickets, collected love offerings, and raised cash contributions for the band to take back to Burma (and to cover the band’s travel expenses). As the tour manager, Eh Wah was responsible for the cash’s safe keeping and worked with band leader Marvellous to do the accounting (click to see an accounting of the funds raised at each concert location).
Civil Forfeiture in Oklahoma
Oklahoma has some of the worst civil forfeiture laws in the country. According to Policing for Profit, the Institute for Justice’s landmark report on civil forfeiture, Oklahoma receives a D- because state law only requires the government to prove a property’s connection to a crime by the lowest standard of evidence—a “preponderance” of the evidence—and innocent owners, like the claimants in this case, bear the burden of proving their own innocence.
Oklahoma Senator Kyle Loveless recently introduced legislation to substantially reform the state’s civil forfeiture laws. The bill met strong opposition from the Oklahoma law enforcement community, which claimed there is no forfeiture abuse in Oklahoma, and ultimately died in committee.
Oklahoma is not a stranger to controversies surrounding local law enforcement’s use of civil forfeiture. Most recently, in late March, 2016, the Sheriff of Wagoner County—which borders Muskogee County—was indicted for extortion and accepting a bribe for allegedly agreeing to drop criminal charges against the owners of $10,000 seized during a highway stop on US-69 in exchange for the owners agreeing to sign over the cash to the County.
Steven P. Minks of the McLaughlin Law Firm, PLLC in Poteau, OK is serving as local counsel in the case.
“Civil forfeiture ranks among the most egregious abuses of property rights in the nation today,” said IJ Attorney Darpana Sheth, who leads IJ’s civil forfeiture initiative. “This case represents one of the most outrageous examples of law enforcement using civil forfeiture laws to trample property rights and violate the trust of the citizens they have sworn an oath to protect. Now is the time for state and federal lawmakers to rectify this injustice and outlaw civil forfeiture once and for all.”