'License, Registration, and Assets, Please': How Oklahoma Cops Swipe Away Your Money During a Traffic Stop
When a police cruiser lights up behind you, a driver usually fears two things: a costly speeding ticket, or a roadside breathalyzer test.
The driver probably isn’t worrying about having the contents of his or her bank account seized, followed by a long and possibly fruitless journey to recoup their lost cash, but that’s the power local law enforcement has over its citizens.
And technology is now making it easier to use that power more and more often.
If you’re nervous, look shady, or give police any reason to suspect you could be involved in a crime, civil asset forfeiture (CAF) laws allow law enforcement officers to seize your cash and bank account — even without a criminal charge. Under the federal equitable sharing program, the bulk of those assets can then be spread to local law enforcement, giving officers an incentive to find something wrong with your car, your behavior, and your story.
Only two states — Nebraska and Wisconsin — require officers to prove potential criminal activity “beyond a reasonable doubt” before going through with CAF. And because it’s a federal program, equitable sharing allows law enforcement to side-step state laws on money gathered through forfeiture.
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol has a new tool to help them separate a driver from their assets. Their troopers are already using an Electronic Recovery and Access to Data Machine (ERAD), which gives them easy access to funds on drivers’ bank cards and prepaid cards. OHP began using 16 ERAD devices in May, according to News9 (via The Free Thought Project).
“We’re gonna look for different factors in the way that you’re acting,” Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. John Vincent told the news station. “We’re gonna look for if there’s a difference in your story. If there’s some way that we can prove that you’re falsifying information to us about your business.”
Vincent added that if a driver can prove they have a “legitimate reason” for having the money — be it in their glove box or bank account, they’ll get it back.
It isn’t just local law enforcement that benefits from the funds gained through asset forfeiture and equitable sharing. News9 found that the maker of the scanner devices, ERAD Group, Inc., signed a contract to be paid $5,000 for the purchase of each device and related software, and 7.7 percent of all the money the OHP seized.
Critics say the practice amounts to theft, as law enforcement doesn’t have to prove a driver’s assets were tied to criminal activity. Because police can seize assets without a criminal charge, the case amounts to a civil procedure — a dispute between law enforcement and a person’s property. Getting the money back can be difficult.
Oklahoma Senator Kyle Loveless (R) is fighting the practice, telling the news station that abuse has already occurred. He pointed to cases where single mothers, a cancer survivor, a Christian band and others had their assets seized.
According to the Washington Post, the U.S. Department of Justice suspended equitable sharing in December of last year, but restarted the program in April. The newspaper’s editorial board slammed the program, stating, “Any link between the volume of seizures and the windfall to police departments must be broken. Otherwise police departments will be tempted to push the rules as far as they can.”
Asset forfeiture funds at the Justice Department and U.S. Treasury ballooned during and after the recession, growing from under $1 billion dollars in 2006 to about $4.5 billion in 2014.
Even if the feds scrap the program, state CAF laws remain with the potential for abuse. Brad Cates, a former director of the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office, wrote in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year that CAF laws had turned into “policing for profit.”
Telling any group to ditch their cash cow always leads to resistance, so expect this battle to play out in the long-term. In the meantime, drivers — in Oklahoma especially — will continue to fear an officer’s ERAD machine as much their sidearm.
[Image: Frankieleon/ Flickr]
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May any officer that willfully and wrongfully takes what is not theirs have their entire pension (and any semblance of a retirement) evaporated by a multibillionaire hedge fund guy/Wall Streeter type looking for a Ferrari for every day of the week, their third megayacht and their sixth summer home.
Where in the hell have you guys been since 1981 when the Rehnquist SCOTUS (co-starring Rehnquist clerk Ted Cruz) gutted the 4th Amendment for Ronnie Reagan's participation in the War on Drugs, blessing us with no-knock search warrants issued on anonymous tips, and civil forfeitures sans charge, trial or conviction... what only us old-timers can remember what used to be known in the US as "due process"...?