Instances of civil forfeiture abuse are common. Indictments against law enforcement are not.
However, this week an Oklahoma grand jury returned an indictment against Wagoner County Sheriff Bob Colbert and one of his deputies stemming from a civil asset forfeiture case. The indictment charges Sheriff Colbert and Deputy Jeffrey Gragg with extortion and bribery, among other things, stemming from the stop, arrest, and subsequent release of Torrell Wallace and a 17-year old passenger.
According to the indictment, during a traffic stop of Wallace’s car, Deputy Gragg discovered $10,000 in cash. When asked about the money, Wallace and his passenger both claimed it belonged to them and were subsequently arrested for “possession of drug proceeds.”
At the jail, the indictment alleges that Sheriff Colbert and Deputy Gragg told the men that they’d be allowed to go free if they signed over the $10,000 to the office’s asset forfeiture fund, which they did.
If this fact pattern sounds familiar, it’s because cases like this are not isolated incidents. The case of Javier Gonzalez sounds eerily familiar. In 2013 Sarah Stillman at The New Yorker documented several similar cases of seemingly extortive forfeiture actions. Our friends at the Institute for Justice have compiled many more.
Because the burden of proof for civil forfeitures is so low, even perfectly benign behaviors can result in seizures. These include carrying too much money, carrying money in an envelope or some other “unorthodox” fashion, or even “traveling to or from a known drug source city,” which seems to include virtually every major city in America. Such a deficient process for government seizures of cash and property makes abuse inevitable, especially when the seizing agency is permitted to keep most or all of the proceeds for itself.