• Debate over confiscated money

    By: Shae Rozzi

    Updated:

    Quick Facts:

    • Proposed law prevents law enforcement agencies from keeping seized money if charges are never filed
    • Tulsa County DA fears the law would protect drug cartels

    Quick Facts:

    • Proposed law prevents law enforcement agencies from keeping seized money if charges are never filed
    • Tulsa County DA fears the law would protect drug cartels
    • FOX23’s Shae Rozzi is taking a closer look at the law and the opposition on FOX23 News Tuesday at 5:45. 

    An Oklahoma lawmaker proposed a law that would make it harder for law enforcement agencies to keep seized property. 

    The law proposed by state Sen. Kyle Loveless requires conviction of a crime to allow the agencies to keep anything seized during a drug investigation. 

    "They'd still be able to seize the property no matter what. They just wouldn't be able to keep it,” said Loveless. 

    Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiller calls the proposal the Drug Cartel Protection Act.

     For one Mannford couple, it took a long legal battle for their charges to be dismissed in 2012.
     
    They said deputies mixed up house numbers and raided their home for drugs and took a truck, boat and guns. They didn’t get it all back.
     
    "Every week or every other week, we get a significant case worth fighting,” said James Wirth, his firm represented the couple during part of their legal proceedings.

    Wirth supports Loveless's legislation.
     
    FOX23’s Shae Rozzi sat down with the senator to ask about the bill that calls for the conviction of a crime before law enforcement can keep seized items.

    “The nature of this idea that you have to a crime in connection with seized property is dangerous to Oklahoma. I call it the Drug Cartel Protection Act,” said Kunzweiller.

    Kunzweiler said he’s concerned the bill means drug cartel runners would be able to keep the thousands of dollars they're caught with on Oklahoma interstates if they weren't committing any other crime.

    “If you take away our ability to attack the profitability, then you are helping out the drug cartels,” he said.

    Loveless told FOX23 he would change the wording in his bill so it would only apply to smaller amounts of money and law enforcement would be able to seize and keep anything over $50,000.

    “The large sums of cash, that's not what my bill is after. I want to give law enforcement the opportunity to seize criminals' stuff but not innocent people's stuff,” said Loveless.

    Loveless said most seizures involve $1,200 or less, and half the people never face any criminal charges.

    “Are they going to hire an attorney for $3,000 or $4,000 to get their $1,200 back? No,” he said.

    Rozzi reviewed recent state audits of district attorneys’ offices in Green Country and found other issues with property forfeiture.

    In Cherokee County, a firearm was returned to a defendant. A disclaimer was prepared by the DA’s office and never filed in court for the release of the firearm.
     
    In Creek County and Nowata County, only one employee handles all the deposits and annual reports, which could lead to "misstated financial reports" and a "misappropriation of funds.”

    In Washington County, they found $5,000 helped pay an assistant district attorney's student loan. The DA responded, and they disagreed that it was inappropriate
     
    In Rogers, Mayes and Craig counties, there was no inventory system in place under the DA elected after the audit. They said they recently worked with one of the auditors to implement one.
          
    Kunzweiler feels DAs are put in a tough spot, because only 50 percent of their budget comes from the state, and lawmakers set it up so they're relying on seized property and money to help cover the other half of their budget.

    “If that's the only mechanism I have to keep the doors open to do that job, then I'm going to have to do with the best of my ability,” he said.

    “Are you willing, as a state lawmaker, willing to propose legislation that would change the way district attorney's offices are funded so they're not caught up in this situation?” Rozzi asked Loveless.

    "Sure. And I think that's something that needs to be addressed,” he said.
     
    Loveless is changing other wording in his bill before the next session. This draft says money seized would go into the state general fund, which is another thing that didn't sit well with Tulsa’s DA, since they wouldn't be getting the money.
     
    Loveless said he'll change it so the money would help pay for local drug courts and treatment programs.

    Read the latest state audit of the district attorney’s office in their county: https://www.sai.ok.gov/audit_reports/district_attorney_audits.php?action=bydistrict

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