How Oklahoma Cops Seized $30K in Charity Funds and Claimed It Was Drug Money
On Feb. 27, Eh Wah was driving through Oklahoma on his way home from a 19-stop tour with Burmese Christian rock band Klo and Kweh Music Team. Wah, a Burmese refugee and U.S. citizen living in Dallas, was the band's volunteer tour manager, and had in his possession some $53,000 in cash raised through the tour—more than $30,000 of it for charity.
A Muskogee County sheriff's deputy stopped Wah for a broken brake light. The deputy, who would later say his K-9 sniffed drugs, found the cash and detained Wah. Six hours later, deputies released Wah with a warning. They hadn't found any drugs.
They kept the cash.
This all is according to Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based nonprofit that calls itself the "National Law Firm for Liberty" and is a major advocate for property rights. The organization, which took up Wah's defense, posted to its website a lengthy account of the events, including a detailed breakdown of the dollar amounts seized and their intended uses.
The breakdown, sourced from the band's tour ledger, shows that approximately $32,000 of the funds, collected from ticket sales and donations, was meant for a Burmese nonprofit Christian liberal arts education institution. Another $1,000 was earmarked for an orphanage in Thailand. The rest, most of it from merchandise sales, was intended to cover various tour costs. The money was loosely organized in envelopes, bags and jacket pockets, stashed in multiple locations throughout Wah's car.
Deputies claimed it was drug money. Via Institute for Justice:
Wah tried to explain that he was on tour with a Burmese Christian band and that most of this cash was the money they had raised for charity, as well as money from CD/souvenir sales, donations to a Thai orphanage, and personal money belonging to him and a band member. Although the deputies looked through photos of the band’s concerts on Eh Wah’s phone, visited the band’s website, and even called the band’s leader, who is named Saw Marvellous, and spoke to him for five to 10 minutes, they said they didn’t believe Wah or Marvellous. The deputies seemed exuberant about having seized this money. Wah was finally released with only a warning for the broken brake light.
Despite claiming that they were seizing all of the cash as alleged “drug proceeds,” the deputies returned a $300 personal check that was made out to Wah, presumably because they could not cash it.
Two weeks after Wah's traffic stop, on March 11, the Muskogee County district attorney filed a civil forfeiture case for the $53,234 deputies seized. On April 5, the district attorney issued an arrest warrant, charging Wah with acquiring proceeds from drug activity, a felony. According to Institute for Justice, the six-sentence affidavit supporting the warrant included no mention of drugs, instead citing "inconsistent stories" as the primary reason deputies seized the cash.
On April 8, Wah turned himself in. Officials never served him with the warrant—Wah learned of it only after a search of online court records.
"The criminal charge is a bogus attempt to pressure Eh Wah into surrendering the cash that was seized as part of a plea deal," Institute for Justice wrote. "There is no evidence at all to support the charge, let alone probable cause."
Most cases like Wah's end there.
A 2015 report by Institute for Justice found that civil forfeiture cases have exploded in recent years. In 1986, the Department of Justice's asset forfeiture fund collected $93.7 million from forfeitures. In 2014, it collected $4.5 billion—a 4,667 percent increase. Law enforcement agencies in 42 states can keep and use funds seized in civil forfeitures. The report graded 35 states a D+ or worse for their civil forfeiture laws.
The Washington Post found similar figures in a 2014 investigation:
- Since 2001, 61,998 cash seizures were made on highways without search warrants or indictments.
- In that same span, cash seizures have totaled $2.5 billion—$1.7 billion of which was retained and used by state and local law enforcement agencies.
- Despite a federal ban on law enforcement using seized money, hundreds of departments nationwide "appear to rely on seized cash" in their budgets.
The report also includes a chilling example of the seizure process in action, gathered from The Washington Post's review of 400 court cases. It details a 2012 traffic stop during which Nebraska deputy sheriff David Frye pulled over California man John Anderson. Frye initially issued a warning for failure to signal, but after saying the stop was over, asked if Anderson had any drugs or "large amounts of cash," and requested permission to search the vehicle. Anderson declined.
Then, according to the report:
Frye then radioed for a drug-sniffing dog, and the driver had to wait another 36 minutes for the dog to arrive.
“I’m just going to, basically, have you wait here,” Frye told Anderson.
The dog arrived and the handler said it indicated the presence of drugs. But when they searched the car, none was found. They did find money: $25,180. Frye handcuffed Anderson and told him he was placing him under arrest. ...
Frye suggested to Anderson that he might not have been aware of the money in his vehicle and began pressing him to sign a waiver relinquishing the cash, mentioning it at least five times over the next hour, the video shows.
“You’re going to be given an opportunity to disclaim the currency,” Frye told Anderson. “To sign a form that says, ‘That is not my money. I don’t know anything about it. I don’t want to know anything about it. I don’t want to come back to court.'"
More than two hours into the stop, Anderson signed the waiver and surrendered the money. Frye, who had said Anderson would face criminal charges if he didn't give up the cash, let him go.
Anderson would later go to court in an attempt to get back his money. Frye, who has seized "millions" in forfeitures, said he has never had a case overturned.
The Washington Post found that just 16 percent of seizures are legally challenged, mostly due to legal costs. But in 41 percent of those cases, the money was returned to the plaintiff. The paper also found that 40 percent of appeals took more than a year to resolve.
In forfeiture cases, it seems, the deck is stacked against civilians. So it was something of a surprise when, on Tuesday, April 26, Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge dropped the charges against Wah and agreed to return the seized money.
"I looked at the case and met with the officers and determined that we would not be able to meet the burden of proof in the criminal case and in the civil case," Loge told The Washington Post.
The announcement came a day after the paper first reported on Wah's case, citing many of the figures it found in its previous civil forfeiture investigations and highlighting Institute for Justice's role in Wah's defense. The story was widely read on The Washington Post's website, spending all of April 25 on the paper's "most read" list and generating more than 1,900 comments. (By comparison, the article atop yesterday's "most read" list had about 300 comments.)
Loge told The Washington Post that the press coverage and public outcry had forced him to quickly re-evaluate the details of the case. But he maintained that the officers involved were correct in seizing the cash.
Dan Alban, a lawyer for Institute of Justice, disagreed.
"It seems like the role of a prosecutor is to figure out whether you can meet your burden of proof before you file charges and not after," Alban told The Washington Post. "I think this case would have continued to go on exactly as it had without the press coverage bringing this into the sunlight and without Eh Wah having access to pro bono counsel."
Alban's assessment appears to be correct. According to the paper, Wah appeared in court for an initial hearing early on April 25, before news outlets reported the story. A judge would not dismiss the criminal charges against Wah, scheduling a next court appearance for July 19. It was only after the news broke later that day that Loge dropped the charges.
It was a victory for Wah and Institute of Justice. But it was a small one in what remains a widespread yet silent war over property rights.
"We thought America was the best in the world," Wah told The Washington Post. "But unfortunately this happened, and it made us [think] like American police are the same as our police in Burma."