A recent analysis of cash seizure cases in 10 Oklahoma counties found that ⅔ of the cases involved blacks, Hispanics and other minorities.
The findings of the study, conducted by Oklahoma Watch, suggest to some that Oklahoma’s asset forfeiture statutes that law enforcement is using involves some degree of racial profiling. It could be that racial profile is subconscious when the police decide which cars to stop and search, and whose money to seize. Still many civil rights groups in Oklahoma argue that these forfeiture practices are a violation of civil rights, as the police are confiscating assets without a conviction or even a charge being filed.
Law enforcement in the state is denying that there is any racial profiling occurring. Some stated that if it is true that there are a lot of Hispanics being pulled over and their cash confiscated, it is because many Mexican drug cartels use Hispanics to transport the money from drug deals. Racial disparities also are reflecting some of the trends in the US overall. The US Sentencing Commission states that minorities are almost 80% of people that are convicted of trafficking drugs in the federal system.
Oklahoma officials stated in response to the study that they do not fully understand why the majority of the cash seizures involve minorities. They think that the power to seize cash and other assets that clearly are tied to drug sales is very important to fight illegal drugs. They added that a new law to limit the ability of law enforcement to seize such cash would increase the illegal flow of drugs in the state.
Still many are calling for civil forfeiture laws to better respect the rights of innocent people, many of whom are being assumed to be drug traffickers.
During its analysis of state court records, Oklahoma Watch studied cash forfeiture cases in 10 OK counties. This included the six biggest ones that involved cash seizures of at least $5000 from 2010 to 2015. From the 401 total cases, 261 involved suspects that were black, Hispanic, American Indian or Asian. The groups with the biggest share of seizures were blacks with 31%, and Hispanics with 29%. Whites were only 31%.
In Oklahoma County, 75% of all cases involved only minorities. 38% in that county were Hispanics and 33% were blacks.
It should be noted that Oklahoma Watch only looked at cases that involved cash seizure of $5000 or more; law enforcement states that such big amounts usually are confiscated in drug trafficking cases. Cases that involve smaller cash amounts usually are related to other police activity that are related to other types of crimes.
According to the legal director of ACLU Oklahoma, Brady Anderson, the findings in the study indicate what his organization has heard about racial profiling during drug stops. He believes that race is a huge factor in who gets stopped and whose cash is seized.
Oklahoma County Assistant District Attorney Scott Rowland says that minorities are not being targeted. He noted in an interview that officers are not racially profiling people because it is both unconstitutional and illegal. Neither is it effective.
Under state laws in Oklahoma, racial profiling by the police is illegal. It is defined as a person being stopped in a vehicle, or is arrested/detained based only on their race. The attorney general found in 2014 that there were 8 total allegations of racial profiling filed and no cause was determined in six of them. The other two cases are still open.
Of course, actually proving that racial profiling happened is very difficult. Many US cities and states spend a lot of money to collect data on law enforcement stops to find any hint of racial discrimination. This data often is simply inconclusive. This can be the case even when a potential racial disparity is identified.
One problem is that a truly accurate analysis has to compare all of the characteristics of people that are involved in traffic stops, seizures and arrests with a proper baseline group or population. OK seizures on freeways often have people from other states involved. Therefore, comparing the racial makeup of all of those stops with the total state population racial makeup could be wrong.
Law enforcement in the state are continuing to respond to the study by Oklahoma Watch, and are reviewing their practices in stopping people and doing cash seizures. Meanwhile, other states are cracking down on civil forfeiture and how law enforcement does it.
More on Cash Seizures
It always surprises people to learn that you can have your cash or property seized in a traffic stop, even if you are not charged with anything. The practice does makes sense in a way. The police should have the discretion to seize assets that are clearly the product of an illegal action or crime.
The problem is that this discretion is taken too far by some police departments. Civil forfeiture differs from criminal forfeiture, in that you do not have to be convicted in a court of law for the former to take place.
The reality is that your property does not have the constitutional protections that you do, and some police departments probably are seizing assets that they should not. There is a conflict of interest there; after all, police departments routinely use cash and assets seized from illegal activities to fund their programs and even purchase equipment.