In late February, police in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, confiscated $53,000 from a Burmese refugee, reported the Washington Post today. But here’s the kicker: All that money was meant for a charity, for a Christian college and orphanage.
The refugee, Eh Wah, who migrated to the U.S. from Myanmar years ago, was driving to Texas after touring with his Burmese Christian rock band, Klo & Kweh Music Team—a tour that was raising money for a Christian college in Myanmar and an orphanage in Thailand. In his car, Eh Wah had the money from ticket, CD and merch sales, as well as donations. In total, it was some $53,000.
He got pulled over in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, for a broken tail light.
According to the report, the road Eh Wah took is notorious for drug dealings, so when the officers who pulled him over found the cash, they were suspicious. Because his first language isn’t English, though, Eh Wah and the officers hit a language barrier and struggled to communicate. They ended up taking Eh Wah in for more questioning.
Eh Wah told the Washington Post, “I just couldn’t believe it. An officer was telling me that ‘you are going to jail tonight.’ And I don’t know what to think. What did I do that would make me go to jail? I didn’t do anything. Why is he saying that?”
It became clear to Eh Wah, he said, that no matter what he did, the officers weren’t going to believe him. “I realized that they were seizing all of the money. I was like, ‘This can’t be happening.’ But I didn’t know what to do.” His assumption turned out be correct, and the officers took all of the money. The police record alleges that the money was “drug proceeds,” according to the property receipt. They eventually let Eh Wah go, and then five weeks later charged him with the felony of “acquir[ing] proceeds from drug activity,” despite finding no drugs in his car when they pulled him over.
This, according to the report, is an instance of what’s called civil asset forfeiture, and it’s not all that uncommon. (John Oliver doesn’t like it at all.) It’s a law that allows authorities to seize cash or other kinds of assets from people they suspect criminal activity. The seemingly crazy part is that in many states, according to the Washington Post report, authorities can keep whatever they took, even if suspect is never convicted or even charged. Under civil forfeiture, the burden of proof is on the property owner—in this case, Eh Wah—to prove his innocence before he can reclaim belongings.
The American Civil Liberties Union is investigating Oklahoma’s use of civil forfeiture. And they’ve found that Oklahoma law enforcement agencies focus their efforts on the routes where cash from drug transactions often appear—instead of routes where people traffic the drugs themselves. The implication, of course, is that the state allows the drugs to be sold so they can catch the cash. According to a 2015 report by the Institute for Justice, Oklahoma has some of the most lax forfeiture laws in the nation. For example, no conviction is required to forfeit. And, get this, there is a statute that allows up to 100 percent of what officials confiscate to go back to law enforcement. As the report clearly points out, this creates a profit model for the state.
The Institute for Justice took up Eh Wah’s case pro bono and have since gotten the criminal and civil charges against Eh Wah dropped. But they say that Eh Wah’s case isn’t an outlier.
“This sort of thing is happening all the time,” Dan Alban, a lawyer with the institute, told WashPo. But what is unique, according to Alban, is the back story “that [the band was] raising all this money for charity, getting a few thousand bucks here and there. Months on the road and then all their money is taken away because Eh Wah’s car has a broken tail light in Muskogee County.” The county district attorney reportedly looked at the case and determined that Muskogee County couldn’t “meet the burden of proof.” And the county is mailing a check for the money taken from Eh Wah soon.
A previous version of this story included material from the Washington Post report without proper attribution. We have corrected the issue and apologize for the error.