“Innocent until proven guilty” is one of the cornerstones of the American criminal justice system, and for good reason: in societies with repressive governments, two of the favorite tools of repression are the police and the courts. Being accused of a crime that you did not commit, or being forced to prove your innocence, or both can be terrifying even with the assistance or legal counsel because of the stark difference in the resources and power that the government can justly or unjustly muster against you.
We are as a society so accustomed to the legal protections that the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights provide that it can be tempting to believe that a Kafka-esque nightmare of false accusations and unjust prosecutions “can’t happen here.” But is that necessarily true? Recent events in Muskogee County suggest that in some situations you can indeed find yourself accused of drug crimes and having your property seized even when you are innocent.
The incident in question began when police pulled over a Texas resident because of a broken brake light on his car, but an otherwise unremarkable traffic stop quickly escalated when officers found more than $50,000 in cash in the vehicle. Under Oklahoma’s current civil asset forfeiture law, having such a large amount of money in your car can lead to a number of unpleasant consequences, such as:
- If you can’t explain to the satisfaction of the police that the money isn’t connected to illegal drug activity, they will effectively assume that it is based on “probable cause” which itself requires proof only to a “preponderance of evidence” standard (as opposed to the ordinary criminal law standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt”);
- They will seize the money; and
- There is a chance that they will not give the money back, even if you are not convicted of a crime.
The Texas driver tried to tell the police that the bulk of the cash in his car was proceeds from a musical group that he was accompanying as its tour manager, but citing “inconsistencies” in his statements the police went ahead and seized the money. He also found himself facing a felony drug charge, even though he claimed that there were no illegal drugs in the car or in his possession. The police affidavit in connection with the arrest states that the money was “in close proximity to or used to facilitate” sale of a dangerous controlled substance although it does not allege that any drugs or drug paraphernalia were found.
Eventually the District Attorney for Muskogee County relented, dropping the drug charge and indicating that the money would be returned about two months after it was taken, but a disturbing feature of this reversal was that it was apparently driven by media exposure of what happened: instead of being illegal drug proceeds, the money was raised from performances of a Christian rock band from Burma. In the absence of such potentially embarrassing publicity, we must wonder whether the prosecution would have relented as soon as it did.
In other words, let’s assume that you are pulled over by the police with a considerable amount of cash in your car, which is seized as drug money because you can’t “prove” on the spot that it is yours legally. As an average citizen, without a sympathetic or sensational news story to put the media spotlight on the police and the prosecutor’s office, it might be harder to persuade them to back off without a legal battle.
If this situation ever happens to you, remember that aside from being publicly shamed into doing the right thing law enforcement authorities can also be dissuaded from trampling your rights through the assistance of experienced defense counsel like those at the Hunsucker Legal Group, who will understand your rights under the US and Oklahoma constitutions and who can make sure that these rights cannot be disregarded in a court of law.