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.
Sheriff Colbert's lawyer, however, insists that the real culprit here is the push for forfeiture reform, and was quick to condemn the prosecution as politically motivated:
“We note that there is pending legislation in the Senate hoping to drastically change drug interdiction laws. Their accusations remain politically motivated."
The "pending legislation" can only be a reference to efforts by State Senator Kyle Loveless to reform Oklahoma's civil asset forfeiture laws. Oklahoma has become one of the flashpoints in the national debate over civil forfeiture, and I've written previously on the hyperbolic rhetoric that Oklahoma law enforcement is using to shut down reform in the state.
As for the political motivations of reformers, it's worth noting that support for civil asset forfeiture reform comes from all corners of the political spectrum, from the conservative Heritage Foundation, to the liberal ACLU, to libertarian organizations like the Institute for Justice. The bipartisan coalition in favor of reform has grown so massive that it seems the only factions still opposed to reform are the government agencies that directly profit from the seizures.
Sheriff Colbert's lawyer also argued that the sheriff was simply following routine procedure:
"The underlying accusation involves a routine drug interdiction (lawful cash seizure of drug funds) by the sheriff’s department. The funds are not missing and are accounted for. The Sheriff’s Office timely deposited every cent of this money in the county’s treasurer account as required by state law. This money was earmarked for fighting drug trafficking to help protect the citizens.
“The basis for this interdiction as reported includes the accusation of deleted records. That accusation cannot be supported at trial. We are looking forward to being released from the gag order such that we can release the counter-evidence exonerating Sheriff Colbert."
The lawyer's statement makes no mention of the alleged arrangement to let the men go free in exchange for signing over their money, which seems to be the crux of the indictment. Even that tactic, however, has routinely taken place in other jurisdictions.
But to be fair, it's understandable that law enforcement officers may sometimes struggle to distinguish civil asset forfeiture from extortion and bribery. Many reform advocates suffer from the same problem.
That is precisely why civil asset forfeiture should be abolished.
For more on civil asset forfeiture and the need for reform, check out our explainer on the topic.