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.”