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Oklahoma Asset Forfeiture Reform Faces Stiff Opposition

An Oklahoma legislator who wants to restrict when police can seize cash and other assets from people they suspect of drug-trade involvement - even without a conviction - fears his colleagues won't have a chance to take up his idea this session.

The bill by Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Loveless says efforts to reach chairman Sen. Anthony Sykes have gone unanswered. He's turned to his constituents to help plead his case, asking them to call the Senate leadership to request that his bill be heard.

Sykes did not return requests for comment Thursday or Friday.

Loveless claims government agencies have taken money and other assets from law-abiding citizens, using civil forfeiture laws to fund local agencies. District Attorney Mike Fields, whose district runs from the western Oklahoma City suburbs to the Kansas border, is critical of Loveless' bill, saying the implication that police would benefit improperly was "frankly offensive" and he's asking the legislator to provide concrete evidence of systemic problems.

The legislator turns the request around.

"I think it's ironic that the DAs are asking for me to provide evidence, which is more than what they're required (to provide) to take someone's property," Loveless said. "I'm not going to do their homework for them. They're the ones that took the money from the people, or property from the people, so they have that information."

The bill, if it became law, would require the state to convict most suspects of a crime before their assets are subject to forfeiture. The proposal does allow for exceptions: If the property is valued at more than $50,000, for instance, the state could seize and retain it without a conviction. Still, under the proposal, the state would have to meet a higher burden of proof than is currently required to do so.

The state must meet a preponderance of the evidence test to subject seized assets to forfeiture. This proposal would increase that burden of proof to require "clear and convincing" evidence.

Under the proposed law, funds raised through seized property would be designated for grants to law enforcement agencies and drug treatment facilities. Currently, money goes directly to the agency that seizes it. The money would also be allocated by an independent board.

"My intent of rerouting the money to a neutral, independent party is to reduce the appearance of impropriety of agencies and law enforcement growing their budgets by how much they seize," Loveless said.

The bill also aims to require local agencies to report asset forfeitures to the state auditor, and to make these reports available to the public.

The Oklahoma proposal comes at a time when civil asset forfeiture laws face increasing scrutiny at federal and state levels. While supporters of the laws say they are critical for undermining criminal operations and funding local agencies' drug-law enforcement efforts, national advocacy groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Charles Koch Institute are calling to reform the practice.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm critical of civil asset forfeiture laws, gave Oklahoma a "D-minus" grade, attorney Dan Alban said last week at a Koch Institute-sponsored panel discussion in Oklahoma City. Only six states received a grade of "B'' or better in the firm's most recent report.

Fields said Loveless' bill, if it became law, could put millions of dollars for local agencies at risk.

"Oklahoma's prosecutors and law enforcement agencies want to do everything we can to protect our communities from those who seek to profit from the drug trade, and we believe drug-asset forfeiture is an important tool in a comprehensive approach to do that," Fields said.

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