Image: Institute for Justice

The Washington Post has a report out today that on February 27, a sheriff’s deputy in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, seized $53,000 in cash from Eh Wah, the tour manager for a Burmese Christian rock band. Eh Wah had been driving with a broken tail light, and the deputy who pulled him over suspected that he was carrying drug money, despite having found no drugs or paraphernalia in his car. Eh Wah’s attorneys claim that the cash was from concert-ticket sales and donations, some of it set aside for an orphanage in Thailand, and some for a school in Burma. Now they are fighting in court to get the money back.

Eh Wah is a Burmese-American immigrant who came to the U.S. as a refugee during his home country’s civil war in the 1990s. When he was pulled over, he was working as a volunteer for Klo & Kweh Music Team, a Burmese Christian music group that was traveling on a five-month tour of churches and other venues in U.S. According to his attorneys, the cash deputies found in his car that night can be accounted for: $32,000 was from ticket sales and donations, $7,300 from CD sales, $1,000 to be donated to Hsa Thoo Lei Orphanage in Thailand, $2,000 in petty cash for Eh Wah, and so on. None of it, according their math, is derived from drug sales.

The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit libertarian law firm, is representing Eh Wah in court. His lawyers argue that his case represents a particularly egregious abuse of civil forfeiture, the process by which police can take money and property that they believe is connected to criminal activity, often without charging the property’s owner with a crime. In many cases, police departments are allowed to keep large chunks of whatever cash they seize for their own budgets and use it to buy new guns, cars, fancy coffee makers for their offices, or whatever else their hearts may desire. According to an earlier Institute for Justice report, Oklahoma’s civil forfeiture law is among the most wide-ranging in the country.

In Eh Wah’s case, the law meant the Muskogee County Sheriff’s Office could seize $53,234 from his car based on startlingly thin evidence. In April, over a month after he was pulled over, the Muskogee County district attorney charged him with “acquiring proceeds from drug activity,” a felony. The deputy who pulled Eh Wah over alleged in an affidavit that a drug-sniffing dog alerted to his car, but not that any actual contraband was found inside.

“Due to the inconsistent stories and Wah unable to confirm the money was his the money was seized for evidence,” the affidavit reads. According to a statement from the Institute for Justice, any inconsistencies “were likely due to Eh Wah’s imperfect English.”

Image: Institute for Justice

If Muskogee County is really only after the money, charing Eh Wah with a crime was something of an unnecessary step, as Oklahoma is one of 40 U.S. states that allow law enforcement officers to make civil forfeiture actions without a criminal conviction. A formal notice of seizure, which Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge filed against Eh Wah in March, would have been all that was necessary to get the cash.

Eh Wah’s lawyers believe the county planned to use the felony as a bargaining chip: the district attorney would offer Eh Wah a sweet plea deal for the criminal charge, on the condition that he agree not fight the civil forfeiture. “No drugs were found & there’s nothing to link the money to any drugs, so there is no basis for any criminal charge,” Dan Alban, the Institute for Justice attorney who is leading Wah’s case, told me via email. “We believe the criminal charge was brought against Eh Wah to pressure him to not contest the civil forfeiture of the money in exchange for a favorable plea deal in the criminal case.”

“I’m not in favor of taking away anyone’s civil rights or anything like that,” Muskogee County Sheriff Charles Pearson told the Washington Post when asked about the seizure. “This is still our community,” he added, “and when they’re bringing their drugs in, we’re going to do everything in our power to stop it.” Representatives from the Muskogee County sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story.

The Institute for Justice filed a claim in court last week arguing that Wah, and several other parties including the Klo & Kweh Music Team and the Thai orphanage, are entitled to the cash. “Muskogee County law enforcement is using civil forfeiture to literally take money from orphans and refugees,” Albans said in a press release about the case. “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.”

UPDATE: Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge said this afternoon that prosecutors will return the seized cash and have dropped the criminal charge against Eh Wah.