By Barbara Hoberock
OKLAHOMA CITY — Nearly 70 percent of Oklahoma likely voters support legislation that would allow law enforcement to keep confiscated property only when there is a criminal conviction, according a poll released Thursday.
The poll bolsters efforts by Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, to reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws, something that has been opposed by prosecutors and some law enforcement.
Currently, law enforcement can seize property such as cash and vehicles if it is believed to have been used in a crime even though there was no conviction. The proceeds are often used to pay for law enforcement functions.
Loveless is the author of Senate Bill 838, which proposes changes to the process.
The poll was paid for by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Conducted by SoonerPoll, the pool has a 95 percent confidence level and involved 403 likely Oklahoma voters.
“Oklahomans believe that law enforcement in the state, of which they have a very favorable opinion, is just on the wrong side of this issue,” said Bill Shapard, CEO of SoonerPoll.
When asked if law enforcement keeping confiscated property without a conviction denied people of due process and was un-American, 78 percent agreed, according to the poll results. Of that figure, 63 percent strongly agreed.
Some 68 percent agreed that the ability to confiscate property without a conviction might encourage cash-strapped counties to increase confiscations in order to pay bills, according to the poll.
Supporters of civil asset forfeiture reform also rolled out a hotline number to collect information from people who have had property seized. The number is 1-866-901-7559. Loveless said the number will assist in determining if problems are widespread. Operators of the line do not provide legal services, he said.
Loveless said his bill will require proof of guilt for property to be confiscated. It also requires the property to be tied to a crime, he said.
Also, if a person is innocent, it requires that the confiscated property be returned quickly, Loveless said. Finally, the bill will be changed to include a neutral account of where proceeds go in hopes of eliminating the appearance of impropriety where government agencies keep growing their own budgets, Loveless said.
The average forfeiture is $1,000 to $1,200, Loveless said. But it typically costs between $3,000 and $5,000 for a resident to hire an attorney in an effort to get the seized property released, he said. “You see it is really pretty simple,” said Brady Henderson, ACLU of Oklahoma legal director. “It is like the side of the police cruiser says. Protect and serve, not to forfeit and seize.
“And yet what we are seeing are dedicated law enforcement units out there that aren’t there to respond to crime and aren’t there to prevent crime. They are there to go after stuff, money, property. That is what is eroding our trust.”
The bill has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, did not respond to a request for comment on whether or not the bill would be heard in his committee.