By Clifton Adcock, Ben Fenwick and Joey Stipek
Nearly two thirds of seizures of cash by Oklahoma law enforcement agencies come from blacks, Hispanics and other racial or ethnic minorities, an Oklahoma Watch analysis of high-dollar forfeiture cases in 10 counties shows.
The findings suggest to some critics of the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws that officers are using racial profiling, even subconsciously, in deciding whose vehicles to search or money to seize. Advocacy groups and some lawmakers argue forfeiture practices violate civil rights and allow police to take assets without a conviction or even filing a charge.
Law enforcement officials deny targeting people by race. Some said if Hispanics are disproportionately represented in forfeiture cases, it is because Mexican drug cartels often use Hispanics to transport drug profits. The racial disparities also reflect some national trends; the U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that minorities comprise nearly 80 percent of those convicted of drug trafficking in federal courts.
But Oklahoma officials said they don’t really know why most of the seizures involved blacks or Hispanics. They argue the power to seize assets that are obviously tied to drug trafficking is critical to fighting the drug war, and a legislative bill that would limit the practice will impede those efforts.
Using state court records, Oklahoma Watch examined forfeiture cases in 10 counties, including the six largest ones, involving seizures of $5,000 or more in cash between Jan. 1, 2010 and Aug. 11, 2015. Out of the 401 cases, 261, or 65 percent, involved only…