Tensions run high
In other states, such as Utah and Oklahoma, the fight continues with striking intensity. Four bills died in Oklahoma this year, despite recent scandals involving forfeiture. An assistant district attorney paid part of his student loan with $5,000 of forfeiture funds, according to state audits, while another lived in a house seized during a drug raid without paying rent, instead of selling the house and placing the proceeds in the county fund. The only bill that made it to Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, which she signed, allows owners to recoup attorney’s fees if they win in court.
Stephen Mills, the police chief in Apache, Oklahoma (pop. 1,429), is among those who sought changes.
In 2010, Mills loaned his blue Ford F-250 to an employee to pick up supplies for the ranch he owned and operated. The worker stole some wire from an oil field, and Grady County Sheriff’s deputies arrested the worker and seized the truck.
Mills, who was chief of an Army narcotics task force at the time, thought they were holding his vehicle in evidence. He spent the next four months calling twice a week, arguing with the department as deputies told him he could not prove his innocence.
“I knew under the law I would eventually get it back, but I couldn't believe they were making it so difficult,” Mills said. “It was all about them keeping the truck instead of doing the right thing.”
Mills went to his local newspaper, The Chickasha Express-Star, which called the district attorney. A few hours later, Mills’ lawyer called him to say he could pick up his truck.
Mills testified in favor of new limits in Oklahoma last September, but the process became a circus. Quarreling lawmakers held two concurrent hearings on forfeiture 100 miles apart, with mostly law enforcement officials testifying in opposition to policy change at the Tulsa Police Academy, as pro-reform advocates ripped forfeiture apart at the statehouse in Oklahoma City.
Then on an episode of the Pat Campbell Show on KFAQ-AM radio last November, Eric Dalgleish, then a major at the Tulsa Police Department, pushed the narrative that ultimately helped kill four bills.
“What it will do is enhance the drug trafficking organizations,” Dalgleish said. “They are politically savvy. They are political activists. If you think they’re not watching this and deciding what state to set up business in, we’re being naïve and we’re being ignorant.”
In Utah, local prosecutors have repeatedly squared off against a local libertarian think tank, with both sides having a hand in crafting legislation. Tensions have run high since voters passed a referendum in 2000 that, among other things, banned police from reaping the proceeds of forfeited property and ended equitable sharing with federal agencies.
Thirteen years later, a 50-page bill that its sponsors said would only combine disparate parts of forfeiture law passed without much discussion. The law additionally made it optional for a court to award attorney’s fees to an innocent owner and limited the amount to 20 percent of the seized property’s value.
"Cleanup and changes were necessary because the law wasn't working,” said Assistant Attorney General Wade Farraway.
After learning about the consequences of the law, the libertarian Libertas Institute publicized the changes and wrote a bill to eliminate the provisions, which legislators essentially adopted and passed the following year.
But the fight wasn’t over. This year local prosecutors successfully fought a bill to strengthen owner protections after testifying in hearings and participating in closed door meetings with legislators.
"You can see the history of the people of Utah resisting this and then the very political and very powerful special interest of law enforcement coming in and getting it back on the books," said Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, raising his voice during a Senate hearing on the failed bill this session.