Civil Asset Forfeiture

Oklahoma Deputies Seize Thousands Raised by Burmese Christian Band and Claim It's Drug Proceeds (Update: Case Dropped)

Money donated to help Christian college in Burma, orphanage in Thailand.


Eh Wah
Credit: Institute for Justice

The civil-forfeiture fighting lawyers of the Institute for Justice are publicizing yet another example of systemic police abuse of civil asset forfeiture. That's the process by which police and prosecutors seize cash and property from citizens and attempt to keep it for themselves without ever having to convict—or sometimes even charge—somebody with a crime.

This time we head down to Oklahoma, where an attempt to reform the state's lax asset forfeiture laws doesn't appear to be going anywhere. This catering to law enforcement budgets instead of constitutional citizen protections comes even as a sheriff in Oklahoma has been indicted for extortion and bribery for a traffic stop that led to a cash seizure.

The victim in this case is Eh Wah, the volunteer tour manager of a Burmese Christian band named Klo & Kweh Music Team. They've been traveling across the United States performing primarily at Karen Christian churches (Karen here is the name of an ethnic minority people from Burma and Thailand). Eh Wah was traveling through Muskogee County, Oklahoma, on the way home to Dallas, when he was pulled over for having a broken brake light. You can probably guess what happened next. It's practically a textbook example of how these stops play out. From the Institute for Justice:

He was stopped by a Muskogee County Sheriff's deputy for a broken brake light. During the stop, the deputy eventually searched his car and found the cash. The deputy alleges that a drug dog alerted at the scene. However, no drugs or drug paraphernalia were found. After interrogating Eh Wah for about six hours, the Muskogee County Sheriff's Office released him after midnight, but kept all of the money as supposed "drug proceeds."

It was a lot of cash, too: More than $53,000. The Institute for Justice has carefully accounted for the origins and purposes of the cash. It's not drug money. The money came from donations from the band's concerts, souvenir sales, or gifted from friends and family to cover touring costs.

The money was raised for a purpose, and again, it wasn't for drugs. According to the Institute for Justice, the donations were intended for the Dr. T. Thanbyar Christian Institute in Burma, a nonprofit liberal arts college. About $1,000 in donations was intended for Has Thoo Lei Orphanage in Thailand.

After deputies seized the cash Eh Wah was traveling with in February, Muscogee County's district attorney filed suit in March to try to let the sheriff's department keep it for good. Because this is a "civil" asset forfeiture process, the lawsuit is filed against the cash itself, not against Eh Wah. Because this is not a criminal charge, there is no constitutional guarantee of a public defender, the process is very bureaucratic, and the threshold to prove the property's connection to crime is much lower than what would require a criminal conviction. Worst of all, in Oklahoma, police may be able to keep 100 percent of what they seize, and that provides a massive financial incentive to do exactly what deputies did here and claim a criminal connection with absolutely no evidence.

But the county sheriff's department and district attorney's office did go ahead an attempt to push for felony charges against Eh Wah on the thinnest of explanations. The affidavit submitted to a judge justifying Eh Wah's arrest contains the following explanation for charging him with acquiring "proceeds from drug activity":

I conducted a traffic stop on a black 4 door Suzuki displaying TX tag DXP0817 for the left brake light being defective. When the vehicle stopped I made contact with the driver Eh Wah. Deputy Sandersfield's K-9 partner had a positive alert on the vehicle. During the search $53,234 cash was found in the vehicle. Due to the inconsistent stories and Wah unable to confirm the money was his the money was seized for evidence, awaiting for charges to be filed for Possession of Drug Proceeds.

That is the entirety of the affidavit right there. That is apparently all the evidence Oklahoma needs to charge you with a drug felony: a drug-sniffing dog that didn't actually find any drugs and a story law enforcement officials deem to be "inconsistent."

I'm skeptical that the county has any actual intent to try to convict Eh Wah, though he did have to turn himself in. He is trying to get the arrest warrant quashed today. Rather, that arrest warrant serves as a paper trail for the civil asset forfeiture proceedings. Because the threshold of evidence for civil forfeiture is so much lower than criminal conviction, they don't have to make the kind of connection necessary to actually put somebody in jail. The criminal charges also can be used to attempt to intimidate the suspect into handing over the assets in exchange for having the charges dropped. That's allegedly what happened in Wagoner County, Oklahoma, where Sheriff Bob Colbert and a deputy have been indicted for extortion and bribery over a case that seems very similar.

Read more about Eh Wah's Oklahoma encounter here and here. And watch the Institute for Justice's video on the case below to get a sense of how truly absurd the county's accusations are:

UPDATE: The Muskogee County D.A.'s office is dropping BOTH the criminal case against Eh Wah and the civil forfeiture effort to keep his money, according to The Washington Post. They will be sending Eh Wah a check equal to the amount of cash they kept.

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  1. Isn’t religion an opiate?

      1. And? Do they not have the same rights as any other person? Why even comment on that aspect of this video?

        1. Opiate, drug trafficking and, as Marx is often paraphrased, religion is the opiate of the masses. It’s a little clever word play

    1. +1 Sigh of the opressed

  2. These asset-forfeiture stories are appalling.

    That said, why does anyone drive cross-country caring $54,000 in cash? I just have a heck of a time wrapping my head around the decision to accumulate that much cash over a 5 month tour and at no time dump it into a bank…particularly when its not his.

    1. Probably because if you are driving around the country putting on fund raisers you are worried that if you make a large deposit after each show you run the risk of having the IRS seize your money because you are trying to “structure” you drug money deposits.

      1. Tru dat.

        Although “structuring” is depositing it amounts just under the reporting limit of $10k. I think if ya dump $54k all at once it will be reported, but nothing else. Depositing $9k six times can be an actual crime.

        1. Madness.

          1. ONE STEP BEYOOOOND!

            Sorry, Madness always triggers that.

            1. Not a bad earworm at all.

        2. except there are countless stories of the IRS going after legitimate bussiness no matter how small the deposit is.
          If one set of licensed robbers ,IRS, doesn’t get you the other one, cops, will and if they don’t the unlicensed ones will I think I would take my chances on the unlicensed.

        3. I think if ya dump $54k all at once it will be reported, but nothing else.

          Still subject to civil forfeiture. They don’t make these kind of reporting requirements so they can do nothing with the reports.

        4. But they probably didn’t get it all at once, so you’d be making deposits of fairly large sums of money at widely varied banks around the country.
          I don’t think there is rule of ‘just under’ 10k, remembering(poorly) past cases it seems like lot’s of little deposits can count.
          Seems like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

      2. So having cash is a crime on the face of it. And depositing it is a crime, on the face of it. Can a dog smell gold bars?

        I love america! or used too.

    2. If he had dumped it in a bank, odds are the IRS or DHS would have gotten their hands on it.

    3. What the hell is your point?

      1. That the banks did 9/11.

      2. I didn’t realize “having a point” was a requirement to posting a comment.

        I thought we all just rambled along with interspersed nuggets of comedy gold.

        1. your nuggets of gold never really “panned out”. Har Har.

    4. Regardless, there is now law saying you can’t carry around X amount of cash on you at any given time.

        1. No, you were right the first time. It’s just that “X” is whatever they fucking feel like.

        2. Why would they need you to break a law to steal your shit?

      1. I’m pretty sure that there are laws that say carrying a penny over $10K is itself evidence of dealing drugs. Guilty until proven innocent.

        1. AFAIK, the only laws regarding carrying over $10k in cash have to do with customs declarations if you’re taking $10k+ in cash or cash equivalents in or out of the country. There are also the laws that require the banks to report any transactions over $10k (and the structuring laws that go along with that), but as far as I know that’s it.

        2. Yeah, to answer you and Paul, snopes has a good article on why it’s not illegal to carry any sum of cash on you, but the cops can confiscate it under the FYTW clause if you can’t prove what it’s for. Because America.

        3. If you are carrying large sums of money it shows you were dealing drugs, if you have small sums of money why that’s what drug users use to buy drugs, so ergo if you carry cash you are involved in drugs.

          Life is so much easier and logical for sub-human assholes.

      2. “Regardless, there is now law saying you can’t carry around X amount of cash on you at any given time.”

        You never heard of suspicion of being guilty of suspicious activity?
        Jeez, grow up.

    5. That said, why does anyone drive cross-country caring $54,000 in cash?

      I have a different question:

      Why does anyone drive cross-country caring $54,000 in cash, and not take a gun with them?

      1. He didn’t want to go to jail?

        1. Yeah. Carrying a gun across the country is trafficking in arms. Bad idea.

          1. Not to mention the cash which would show proceeds from illegal gun sales.

      2. Thank god he wasn’t. We’d be reading about his funeral.

      3. When I drove to Tucson, I carried all of our high-value items with me. I’m guessing I had nearly $80K worth of stuff.

        Damn right I carried a gun. I had a TX concealed carry license (which was good in NM), and of course AZ doesn’t require no steenkin’ license, so I was good and legal.

        1. To be fair, you were not driving “cross country”, but rather through a limited set of jurisdictions you knew you would also be in compliance within.

    6. It’s not an unreasonable question to ask, because it’s not just the cops that might steal the cash. However, as posted above, there are lots of reasons why one might try to avoid jamming a large cash sum in the bank as you drive around the country taking cash donations.

      To Los Doyers above:

      Yes there is. It’s a civil forfeiture law. If you’re caught with cash, it can be appropriated by the police.

      1. If you’re caught with a savings account, can they take that too?

        1. They can take whatever they want. What are you going to do about it? Call the cops?

        2. It’s not cash, so a dog won’t alert on it.

          1. And by dog, I mean an officer of the law.

  3. and Wah unable to confirm the money was his

    If only Wah had written his name on all the bills, this could’ve all been avoided.

    1. Wah unable to confirm the money was his

      Because it wasn’t? it belonged to the band and/or the beneficiaries?

      1. Ah, so he should’ve written their name on it, then?

        1. It all belonged to a group of people named Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson, Grant and Franklin.

          1. And soon Tubman. Reparations.

            1. I can hardly wait for the new Tubman bills to come out, so I can start referring to $20 bills as “Tubbies”.

  4. Do people entering ‘public service’ have to give up their ethics on taking the job?
    Doesn’t a single one of the people involved have a conscience?
    Oh, and Mike, how about because he chose to travel with that amount of money; I don’t think he needs approval to do so.

    1. Or, come to think of it, do any of them look in the mirror in the morning? Hasn’t it shattered?

    2. Do people entering ‘public service’ have to give up their ethics on taking the job?

      “When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.”

      So yes. Having absolutely no sense of morality is a requirement for such work.

      Doesn’t a single one of the people involved have a conscience?

      Being a police officer or prosecutor requires a criminal level of malicious indifference.

    3. Never meant to imply he needed approval. Just boggled by the action. It part, I think this is why the public shrugs off these sorts of things more than would be expected. It always seems to be a dude with a quite strange story.

      1. Well, it’s the strange cases that are often the most important to safeguarding important rights.

        He seems to have been doing just fine carrying the cash around until the cops got hold of it. So, perhaps it isn’t such a dangerous or foolish thing (if you assume that cops aren’t amoral fucks who want to rob you, that is).

        1. “if you assume that cops aren’t amoral fucks ”

          I assume no such thing,

          I used to keep $1000 in twenties in an envelope taped to the inside cover of the back of my driver’s seat.
          It was for serious emergencies when ferrying the spawn to various parts of the country.

          I stopped doing that, not because of concern over criminals, but concern over getting caught up in some trumped-up law enforcement BS. “Yes, your honor, the perpetrator had a loose wad of small bills secured in a secret compartment in his car, clearly the actions of illicit activities, most likely drug trafficking.”
          I would hate to lose the grand, but frankly far more concerned about the huge attorney fees fighting the other BS.

  5. It’s sickening to me that a judge of the district court of Muskogee County actually signed the affidavit of probable cause to detain him. If Merle hadn’t recently passed, I’m sure he would no longer be “proud to be an Okie from Muskogee.”

  6. Progressives like it when the government stops people from spreading Christianity, but I’m surprised that went over in Oklahoma.

      1. I guess if there’s one thing the voters of Oklahoma like better than using evangelical Christianity to combat homosexuality, it’s the police stealing money?

        It might have played worse in Oklahoma if the victim of this state sanctioned robbery hadn’t looked so foreign. Maybe he should do interviews in a Sooners jersey or somethin’.

        When we give the government the ability to wield power arbitrarily, that’s exactly what they do with it. Fuckin’ crooks. No wonder Hillary’s winning despite being a crook. More than half the country’s probably on the take in one way or another.

        1. Oh no, in that part of OK I’m pretty sure they were orange. A Sooners jersey probably would’ve gotten him shot.

          1. The fact that I can’t make head or tails of this is further evidence that I probably wouldn’t make it in OK.

            1. So, OK doesn’t have NFL football, they have college football, and the red necks go ape shit over it. In the south, it’s OSU and the Sooners, who wear red. In the north, it’s OU, who wear orange.
              I was in a dollar store in EL Reno (Sooners territory) around Halloween, and overheard a girl asking her dad to buy her some Halloween decorations, which, as you might guess, were black and orange. The red neck replied, and I’m not making this up, “you know how I feel about orange; I won’t have it in the house.”

              1. Oh and I got that backwards: Red sooners in the south are OU, orange north is OSU

              2. Fortunately, those kinds of extremist nuts are a fairly small minority. I live very close to OSU– I can see their baseball field (well, part of it) from my bedroom window. But I see people wearing Sooners shirts and hats all the time. The OU and OSU fans will hang out and get drunk together in the bars here. They’ll make lots of jokes about each other, but that’s about as hostile as it really gets.

  7. Eh Wah was traveling through Muskogee County, Oklahoma, on the way home to Dallas, when he was pulled over for having a broken brake light.

    You can’t make this shit up! It’s right out of a bad B movie.

    1. We don’t tolerate cash in these parts, boy.

    2. It’s right out of a bad B movie.

      And/or a Stephen King story.

      1. No, not a Stephen King story. It’s not set in Maine.

        1. A lot of his “shitkicker pig” stories are set outside of Maine.

    3. Seen it already.

      My Cousin Ngyuen.

  8. Um…wait. “Burmese”? Why isn’t it Myanmarese?

    And…um….just to poke the angry libertarian hornets nest. That region of the world does happen to be notorious for opium export. Perhaps “Klo & Kweh Music Team” is a nice little front for that age-old Golden Triangle profession.



    1. Because Myanmar was the name made up by the insane military dictators that were running the place.

      1. Myanmar and Burma are the same word? Myanmar is the formal pronunciation and Burma is the informal/lower class pronunciation.

    2. No member of any cartel in the Golden Triangle would be traipsing across Oklahoma in a 4-door Suzuki.

      1. I don’t know about that. I saw some MS13 guys the other day driving around Jersey in a 2-door Geo.

        1. I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada with a chinese menu in his hand walking the streets of soho in the rain….. his hair was perfect.

  9. that is plain criminal why can’t our representatives see that. I forgot because they are supported by the police unions that is why California’s anti seizure bill was tossed. Criminals protecting criminals. get rid of the police Unions and that crap will at least slow down.
    that said these people should get a bank account because if the licensed robber cops don’t get you the unlicensed robbers will.
    that gives me an idea. whats the difference between a thief and the police? one is licensed by the state and as I’ve said before the state does not like competition

  10. “About $1,000 in donations was intended for Has Thoo Lei Orphanage in Thailand.”

    $1000 for Has To Lay? in Thailand.
    Really you guys, do I have to do all the comedy today?

    1. I’ll be here for a while — when do you start?

  11. RE: Oklahoma Deputies Seize Thousands Raised by Burmese Christian Band and Claim It’s Drug Proceeds
    Money donated to help Christian college in Burma, orphanage in Thailand.
    Scott Shackford|Apr. 25, 2016 12:25 pm

    Of course the Oklahoma police seized the money.
    Amerika wouldn’t be a police state if cops didn’t take things from people without due process.
    I would think you people would realize that by now.

    1. Who are you calling “you people?”

  12. This is why Steve Martin’s portrayal of Rupeicht the was so spot on. He would have fit right in as an Oklahoma cop.

  13. The relevant judges’ names should always be included in these stories. They shouldn’t remain in the shadows.

  14. I’m really surprised this jack-boots haven’t pulled over a fucking Brinks truck yet. How would the driver prove all that money wasn’t drug-money, hmm?

  15. Update! They’ve dropped the case.

  16. Asset forfeiture infuriates me.

    Home of the free my ass…

    1. ditto

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