Eh Wah, volunteer manager of the Klo & Kweh Music Team, stands by his car outside of his home in Dallas, Texas. (photo courtesy of the Institute for Justice).

Police Took $53k from this Christian band, an orphanage and a church

A group of Karen Christians from Burma and Thailand have partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to challenge the civil forfeiture of more than $53,000 by Muskogee County.

On Monday, I wrote about a strange civil forfeiture case out of Oklahoma, in which Muskogee County sheriff’s deputies seized over $53,000 in cash from a Burmese Christian rock band, a church in Omaha, and an orphanage in Thailand following a traffic stop over a busted tail light.

After the story was published, Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge decided to dismiss both the civil case (the cash seizure) and a criminal charge of “acquir[ing] proceeds from drug activity” against the principal defendant, Eh Wah, after reviewing the evidence and speaking with the officers involved.

“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 said in an interview. He also cited the press coverage of the story, and said that his office has heard from “a lot of citizens” who were upset about the details of the case.

Eh Wah was acting as the volunteer tour manager for the Klo and Kweh Music Team, a music group from Burma. They were touring the U.S. to raise money for a Christian liberal arts school in Burma and an orphanage in Thailand. They collected their concert proceeds in cash, which they entrusted to Eh Wah to manage and safeguard.

When Eh Wah was pulled over for a broken tail light in February by Muskogee County sheriff’s deputies who said a drug-sniffing dog alerted on the car. When the deputies searched the car, they found all $53,000 that the band had raised. They didn’t like Eh Wah’s explanation for why he had it, citing inconsistencies in his responses to police questions. So they seized the cash and eventually charged him with a drug felony, even though they found no drugs or paraphernalia in the car or in his possession.

In an interview, Loge, the district attorney, said the officers had enough probable cause to take the cash.

“In this case, the question was did they have probable cause to act? And in my opinion they did,” he said. But he added, “Once you file cases and facts come to light, things change. That’s the way our justice system is designed and you have to let the wheel of justice turn and act — and that’s what we did.”

Dan Alban, the lawyer for the Institute for Justice representing Eh Wah and the other owners of the cash, said that the case should never have gone that far.

“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 said.

He added, “I think this case would have continued to go on exactly as it had without the press coverage bringing this into the sunlight, and with Eh Wah having access to pro bono counsel.”

In 2014, a Washington Post investigation found that, since the 9/11 terror attacks, police had seized over $2.5 billion in cash nationally without search warrants or indictments. Of those nearly 62,000 seizures, only one in six was legally challenged by defendants, in part because the cost of doing so tends to be high. When defendants did challenge the seizures, the government agreed to return all or part of the money 41 percent of the time.

Alban noted that Eh Wah had an initial hearing in court on the criminal charges on Monday, before the stories about the case had been published by The Post and other news outlets. At that hearing, the judge refused to hear an initial motion to dismiss the criminal charge and set Eh Wah’s next court date for July 19. “The attorneys at that hearing, they didn’t know about the news stories. That was the sort of business as usual that you [usually] see in these forfeiture cases,” Alban said.

But later in the day, Loge decided to drop the criminal charge and return the money to the claimants.

“The real tragedy is not what happened in this case, but it’s what happens in all the other cases when there isn’t a national public interest law firm to represent people, and there isn’t story in The Washington Post and other outlets that explain what’s going on, and instead somebody can’t fight this,” Alban said.

In an interview, Eh Wah said that news of the dismissals is “a big relief.” But given the ordeal he’s been through, he says it will take a while for things to return to normal for him. “I’m happy and relieved but I think it will take me some time to get back to my normal life. It still bothers me even though it’s over.”

More from Wonkblog:

The feds have resumed a controversial program that lets cops take stuff and keep it

What life is like after police ransack your house and take ‘every belonging’ — then the charges are dropped

The surprising reason more police dogs are dying in the line of duty