A number of states will consider bills to reform state asset forfeiture laws during the upcoming legislative session. One special interest group opposing the reform movement shows why so many people call asset forfeiture “policing for profit.”

The Oklahoma bill, along with legislation introduced in other states, would require a criminal conviction before law enforcement and prosecutors can proceed with asset forfeiture.It’s hard to imagine how anybody could oppose such a reform. No person should have their property confiscated if they did not commit a crime. But prosecutors and law enforcement lobbyists in Oklahoma do indeed oppose the reform – passionately.

Opponents of asset forfeiture often refer to it as “policing for profit” because in many states law enforcement agencies get to keep a large percentage of any assets they successfully seize. This results in literally millions of dollars flowing into police department coffers. This creates perverse incentives. Instead of focusing on crimes that directly harm individuals in the community, such as rape and murder, police have a financial interest in focusing time and resources that can potentially lead to a big payoff.

That may seem cynical, but a letter sent to Oklahoma legislators from the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association makes it pretty clear where the priorities lie.

“It is estimated that $5 to $10 million per year of the drug enforcement efforts in Oklahoma are funded by the forfeited proceeds of drug dealers, traffickers, criminal street gangs, and drug cartels. Limiting the use of this valuable tool will place the burden of funding this effort on the taxpayers — hard working innocent Oklahomans.”

You see where the emphasis fall?

On the bottom line.

It appears that the law enforcement community doesn’t want its cash cow skewered.

When you read the prosecutors’ sob-story, keep in mind the reforms would not stop them from seizing assets belonging to anybody convicted of a crime. If prosecutors can prove a person is a drug dealer, trafficker, or is a member of a criminal street gang or a drug cartel, forfeiture can go on as it always has. Only those proven innocent, or not charged with crimes, will enjoy protection under the law.

Essentially the District Attorney Association is telling you it cannot catch criminals without the ability to take property from innocent people.

Stop a moment and let that sink in.

Now, Oklahoma District Attorney Association president-elect Mike Fields naturally takes great offense to accusations of “policing for profit.” He expressed his displeasure to the Tulsa World.

“The notion that Oklahoma prosecutors and law enforcement officers are routinely violating Oklahomans’ rights so they can buy things used to combat the drug trade is very offensive to Oklahoma prosecutors and law enforcement.”

Well Mike, riddle me this – why do you oppose a bill requiring you to convict somebody before you take their stuff? If you don’t violate people’s rights, why oppose a bill meant only to keep you from violating people’s rights?

A coalition supporting asset forfeiture reform fired back a letter of its own, summing up things nicely.

“The United States has had unjust laws — slavery, poll taxes, and citizens being denied the right to vote…Now is the time to add civil asset forfeiture to that list of outdated, unjust laws. We believe the pendulum has swung too far from due process and the principle of innocent until proven guilty.”

Mike Maharrey

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