Oklahoma prosecutors seized assets from suspects to pay down their student debt and live rent-free
Suited man with money bag (Shutterstock)

Law enforcement officials in Oklahoma have used property seized from suspects to pay down student loans and live rent-free for years, state auditors found.

Those cases were brought up in a state commission hearing Tuesday after prosecutors and sheriffs objected to new legislation aimed at curbing abuses in civil forfeiture, reported the Oklahoma Watch.

Law enforcement authorities argue that civil forfeiture is necessary to fight drug trafficking, and they have strenuously objected to a bill introduced by state Sen. Kyle Loveless (R-Oklahoma City) that would prohibit property forfeiture until suspects are convicted.

State law currently allows seized cash or property to be turned over to the District Attorney's office, which may then spend the proceeds on enforcement of drug laws and drug-abuse education.

Law enforcement officials argue they can't wait until convictions are reached to prevent drug money from moving elsewhere in the state, but the bill's GOP sponsor said the practice was outrageous and riddled with abuse.

“The more I learn about it, the more upset and outraged I get that we’ve allowed this process to get to where it’s at,” Loveless said. “Your property is considered guilty until proven innocent. It is up to the individual to petition the government after they’ve seized it to prove that it is innocent. To me, that, on its face, is un-American.”

Law enforcement officials complained that Loveless was using scare tactics to push his bill and hyping the abuses turned up by state investigators.

A 2009 audit found an assistant district attorney for Beaver, Cimarron, Harper and Texas counties had been living rent-free in a house seized five years earlier -- even after a judge ordered the building to be sold at auction.

Another audit in 2014 found that an assistant district attorney for Washington and Nowata counties had used $5,000 in seized cash to make student loan payments and tried to justify the payments as reimbursement for later work prosecuting drug cases.

Oklahoma Watch examined audits from 2007 and 2014 and found at least a dozen cases where forfeited cash, guns and vehicles went missing or was never inventoried -- and prosecutors often pushed back against the auditors's findings and recommendations, the newspaper reported.

Under Senate Bill 838, forfeiture actions could not be brought against property owners until a criminal case was opened, and seized funds would go into the state's general revenue fund rather than be turned over to district attorneys.

“It will keep the practice in place, but it takes away the possibility of an innocent person getting their stuff taken and also takes away the possibility for financial abuse on the back end,” Loveless said.

However, law enforcement officials complain the limits would cripple their anti-drug efforts.

“I know for a fact we all try to work very hard to rid this devil’s candy off of our state, and for someone to try and push us back — sheriff’s departments, police departments — that’s how we continue our fight, is to take that money and go forward,” Comanche County Sheriff Kenny Stradley. “That will set us back many, many, many years.”