Criminal Justice

New Developments in Civil Asset Forfeiture in Oklahoma

The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety has recently purchased technology from the Electronic Recovery and Access to Data Group Inc. (ERAD) allowing law enforcement to freeze and seize funds loaded onto prepaid debit cards, expanding the reach of civil asset forfeiture power the state already held. These small scanners are designed to be placed in law enforcement vehicles, which can then be used to request a balance just as a typical vendor would. Before this technology, both state and federal law granted law enforcement permission to seize any cash they suspected to be involved in criminal activity, commonly citing the cash’s use in the illicit drug trade.

Now, not only can law enforcement officials seize cash in the case of suspected criminal activity, they can also transfer funds from financial institutions into accounts held by law enforcement agencies. These scans can also produce pertinent information about connected accounts, card numbers, names, and the card issuer for prepaid cards.

John Vincent of Oklahoma Highway Patrol is confident ERAD’s use will be specific. “If we have reasonable suspicion to believe there’s a crime being committed, we’re going to investigate that. If someone has 300 cards taped up and hidden inside the dash of a vehicle, we’re going to check that,” Vincent said. “But if the person has proof that it belongs to him for legitimate reasons, there’s nothing going to happen. We won’t seize it.” However, legislators have already expressed hesitation about the implications for an individual’s due process rights. Senator Kyle Loveless of Oklahoma City said: “It’s scary to know that this technology even exists and that government agencies are using it without an arrest [and] without a warrant.”

Responding to concerns of the device’s potential for misuse, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin called for the Department of Public Safety to “formulate a clear policy for using this new technology. It can be a viable tool for law enforcement only if authorities are able to ensure Oklahoma motorists and others driving through our state that it will be used appropriately.”  Due to concerns expressed by the public and legislators, the governor ultimately called for the suspension of the program; however, this suspension can be lifted at any time.  Therefore, this program must be closely watched, should it be reimplemented.

The Institute for Justice’s Policing for Profit report for Oklahoma demonstrates that Oklahoma received an annual average of over $4.7 million dollars in cash derived from their civil forfeiture process from 2000 through 2014. These figures have the potential to increase over coming years, should law enforcement embrace ERAD’s new technology.

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