As the public becomes increasingly wary of civil asset forfeiture -- the practice by which law enforcement can seize private property without accusing its owners of a crime, and, in many cases, keep the spoils -- officials have been insisting that these assets are necessary to keep their budgets afloat.
But in Oklahoma, it seems some of these forfeited assets went into personal, rather than state, coffers. State audits discovered numerous instances where seized funds and property were used for personal purposes, or went mysteriously “missing.”
One district attorney lived rent-free in a confiscated home for years, and had his office pay his utility bills. Another used $5,000 in forfeited funds to pay off his student loan debt—and, when he was found out, claimed he deserved that payment because of all the drug cases he had prosecuted.From Oklahoma Watch:
Under state law, the money or proceeds from forfeited property are supposed to be spent on enforcement of drug laws and drug-abuse prevention and education. … Regarding use of the property or money after seizure, audits of district attorney's accounts by the State Auditor and Inspector's Office have found the assets in a number of cases were misused or not accounted for. A 2009 audit of the district attorney’s office that represents Beaver, Cimarron, Harper and Texas counties found that a Beaver County assistant district attorney began living rent-free in a house obtained in a 2004 forfeiture. A judge had ordered the house sold at an auction, but the prosecutor lived there through 2009. Utility bills and repairs made to the house were paid out of the district attorney’s supervision fee account, the audit states.
All in all, Oklahoma Watch found at least a dozen cases of improper handling of seized assets between 2007 and 2014.
State Sen. Kyle Loveless has proposed a bill curbing asset forfeiture unless the property owner was convicted of a crime. The seized assets would then go to the state’s general fund.
“They’re telling scary stories on the other side, and it’s just not accurate,” District Attorney Greg Mashburn protested, when asked about the legislation.