Muskogee County, Ok. district attorney Orvil Loge told Gawker this afternoon that prosecutors will return $53,234 in seized assets to Eh Wah, a man who was pulled over in February while carrying the cash for a Burmese Christian rock band. Loge said his office also dropped a felony criminal charge against Eh Wah, who had been accused of “acquiring proceeds from drug activity.”
The news comes hours after the libertarian nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice announced in a release to reporters that it was representing Eh Wah in court. The Institute for Justice highlighted Eh Wah’s case as a particularly vivid illustration of the dangers of civil forfeiture, a much-criticized process by which law enforcement officers can seize cash and property that they believe is connected to criminal activity, without charging the property owner with a crime.
In many cases, police departments are entitled to a share of the property and assets they seize, making civil forfeiture big business for the cops. In 2014 alone, American law enforcement officers seized a total of $4.5 billion from citizens in forfeiture actions.
Eh Wah’s case stood out not for the size of the bounty, but for the apparent vastness of the difference between the accusations against him and his actual conduct. As a volunteer tour manager for Christian music group Klo & Kweh Music Team, he was carrying money that the musicians had received in donations and ticket and merchandise sales, some of which had been set aside for donations to a school in Burma and an orphanage in Thailand.
A Muskogee County sheriff’s deputy who pulled Eh Wah over for driving with a broken tail light in February seized the money because he suspected it was proceeds from drug sales. The deputy wrote in a sworn affidavit that a K-9 unit had alerted on Eh Wah’s car, and that Eh Wah—who speaks imperfect English—gave “inconsistent stories” about the nature of the cash.
District Attorney Loge elaborated about those alleged inconsistencies in a phone interview this afternoon. When Eh Wah was first stopped, he said that he did not have any money in the car, and only told the deputy about Klo & Kweh Music Team after the deputy searched the vehichle and found several containers of cash, according to Loge.
But after reviewing the particulars of the case this morning, Loge said, he came to believe he could not meet the burden of proof in Loge’s criminal case or in the civil forfeiture case. “I had to do what’s right, and that’s to return the money to him and his attorneys,” Loge said.
As the Tulsa World noted in a story about the seizure, an attempt to reform Oklahoma’s asset forfeiture laws—which the Institute for Justice has called among the worst in the country—was foiled in the state legislature last year. “We’ve seen in Oklahoma — through county commissioner scandals, Supreme Court justice scandals — if we let people go without any checks and balances in place, bad things happen,” State Senator Kyle Loveless, who introduced the reform bill, told NPR.
Loge, however, contends that the Eh Wah case was not indicative of a larger problem with civil forfeiture in Oklahoma or elsewhere. “Oklahoma civil forfeiture is designed to allow law enforcement to take drug proceeds or criminal proceeds off the streets,” he told Gawker. “It’s also designed that if proceeds are taken, and they’re not criminal proceeds, that those be returned to their lawful owner. It happened the way it was designed. Mr. Wah without his money for over two months, but his money is being returned to him, and to his cause.”