ARLINGTON, Va.—The Institute for Justice (IJ), a nonprofit public interest law firm that protects property rights nationwide, today praised Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt for his call yesterday to end civil forfeiture and replace it with criminal forfeiture. Civil forfeiture allows police to seize and prosecutors to litigate the transfer of title to property without convicting or even bringing criminal charges against someone.
“Governor Stitt was right. No Oklahoman should lose their property through forfeiture unless they are convicted of a crime. Forfeiture should only be available as punishment for a crime in criminal court,” said IJ Senior Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath. “Crime should not pay. Oklahoma prosecutors should use forfeiture to confiscate the fruit of crime, but their litigation should be done as part of a criminal prosecution—not separate and crazy civil litigation where cars and cash are named as the defendants.”
Policing for Profit, IJ’s report on civil forfeiture now in its third edition, gives Oklahoma a D- for its civil forfeiture laws. In Oklahoma, there is a low bar for prosecutors to forfeit property. Law enforcement also keeps 100% of the proceeds of forfeiture, giving officers a powerful incentive to police for profit.
That incentive drove Oklahoma cops in one of IJ’s most infamous civil forfeiture cases. Eh Wah, an American citizen traveling with a Christian band raising money for a Thai orphanage, was pulled over in Muskogee. The police seized more than $50,000 in cash donations raised for the orphans, and the state of Oklahoma attempted to keep the money forever using civil forfeiture. After IJ stepped forward to represent Eh Wah and shined a national spotlight on the injustice, prosecutors scurried to give back the money to Eh Wah and the orphans he was trying to help.