Civil asset forfeiture hit a new low in Oklahoma when sheriff’s deputies seized $53,249 intended as donations to a Christian school and an orphanage from the manager of a Christian band. Even worse, deputies accused the band manager of being a drug dealer and labelled the cash drug money.
“I realized that they were seizing all of the money,” the manager, Eh Wah, told The Washington Post. “I was like, ‘This can’t be happening.’ But I didn’t know what to do.”
Eh Wah was stopped for a broken brake light on February 27, in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Deputies found no drugs or paraphernalia in the car, but they took all of the cash after a drug-sniffing dog allegedly detected something on the car. False positives are common among such dogs.
Most of the money had been raised for a Thai Orphanage and a non-profit Christian school in Burma, although some of it belonged to the band and to Wah.
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The band is Klo & Kweh Music Team, a Christian rock group from Burma. The members were touring the United States, raising funds with concerts at churches.
Eh Wah, an immigrant from Myanmar, was acting as the band’s manager. The funds were intended for efforts to help the Karen people, a persecuted Christian minority in Burma. The orphanage and school were set up for Karen refugees.
“You don’t have to be an orphanage, a church, or a Burmese Christian rock band to be a victim of civil forfeiture, but when even their money isn’t safe, no one’s money is safe from forfeiture abuse,” said Institute for Justice attorney Dan Alban.
Deputies took Eh Wah to sheriff headquarters and questioned him about the money for hours, and Eh Wah, who doesn’t speak perfect English, tried to explain what the money was but he was ignored. They even called a band member.
“The police officer started asking questions,” the band member, Saw Marvellous Soe, told The Washington Post. “I explained: ‘We are a music team. We came here for a tour.'”
No Money is Safe
Deputies eventually released Eh Wah without charging him, but still took the money. On March 11, Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge filed a formal Notice of Seizure and Forfeiture. Such a notice allows the county to keep the money without filing criminal charges.
“Eh Wah is totally innocent. Muskogee County has no evidence that the cash is associated with drug activity, other than the supposed alert of a drug dog on a car where no drugs were found,” the Institute for Justice said in a press release.
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Finally, on Tuesday of this week – and after the story made mainstream headlines — Loge announced that his office would be giving Eh Wah the money back. Loge made the announcement one day after the Institute for Justice sent out a press release.
“In Oklahoma, civil forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to keep the money they seize, which encourages them to target ordinary citizens like Eh Wah and many others,” said Institute for Justice attorney Matt Miller. “Police and prosecutors cannot treat citizens like ATMs. It is not illegal to carry cash in this country, no matter who you are, where you are from, or how much money you have. This case is a clear-cut example of policing for profit.”
The charges were a double insult for Eh Wah, who spent 12 years in a refugee camp in Thailand before finding freedom in America. Like many Karen people, he was driven out of his homeland because of his faith – Christianity.
Eh Wah discovered to his peril that carrying cash is a crime in America, and Oklahoma has some of the worst civil forfeiture laws in the country. Under state law, no criminal charges are required to seize money and property.
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