July 2016 Editorial Winner

Freedom needs a watchdog
Ted Streuli, The Journal Record

The answer was in the contract.
The Department of Public Safety assured Oklahomans that its new scanners were meant to block identity theft, not to up its take on cash forfeitures.
But when the contract came to light, it showed the police agency had agreed to pay a few thousand dollars for hardware and software and that the vendor would get 7 percent of all seized cash.
That’s prima facie evidence, as they say in legal circles, that the intent was to up the ante on taking cash.
“If you can prove that you have a legitimate reason to have that money it will be given back to you,” Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. John Vincent told a television station.
That sounds like you’re guilty until proven innocent to us. The burden of proof must be on the state, not the accused.
Putting its foot further into its mouth, records also showed that DPS also wanted bank account and routing numbers but the vendor said no.
That June incident came on the heels of asset forfeiture abuses in other jurisdictions, such as the December seizure of $10,000 in Wagoner County that led to the indictments of the sheriff and a captain; the widely reported aggressive seizures in Caddo County, which hired a Guthrie firm called Desert Snow to help boost such forfeitures; and the April seizure of $53,000 in Muskogee County, money that was headed to a Christian school and orphanage in Asia.
In a November report, the Institute of Justice gave Oklahoma a D- for its asset forfeiture policy based on three criteria: 100 percent of the money goes to the agency that seized it, the standard of proof is very low, and the burden falls to the defendant to prove he’s rightfully entitled to his money.
“It’s kind of like pennies from heaven,” the Columbia, Missouri, police chief told a police review board in November. “It gets you a toy or something that you need is the way that we typically look at it, to be perfectly honest.”
But it’s not pennies. The Oklahoma ACLU found that in a five-year period more than $6 million was seized along Interstate 40 and in two-thirds of the cases, no criminal charges were filed.

Americans celebrate freedom this week, but the plethora of asset forfeiture abuses reminds us that freedom requires watchdogs.

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