This article is more than 1 year old

Oooooklahoma! Where the cops can stop and empty your bank cards – on just a hunch

Civil asset forfeiture goes digital and politicians wake up

Police in Oklahoma are deploying an electronic scanner that can drain currency from prepaid credit cards seized at the roadside using civil asset forfeiture laws.

The Electronic Recovery and Access to Data (ERAD) handheld scanner was developed at the request of the Department of Homeland Security for use by US border guards. But the gadget's maker is now marketing it to local and state police, and Oklahoma has bought 16 of the scanners for its highway patrol.

The reader can record data from any magstripe card – even down to hotel keys – and works with Visa, MasterCard, and American Express, as well as Best Buy, Costco, Macy's and Walmart gift cards. Any funds found can be frozen or transferred directly to a law enforcement bank account "to protect the integrity of the evidence and ensure the funds are available for trial or forfeiture," ERAD's advertising states.

The state police are paying ERAD $5,000 and 7.7 per cent of all funds seized. Highway Patrol Lt John Vincent told KWTV that the main purpose of the readers is to catch identity thieves and money launderers.

"We're gonna look for different factors in the way that you're acting," he said. "We're gonna look for if there's a difference in your story; if there's some way that we can prove that you're falsifying information to us about your business. I know that a lot of people are just going to focus on the seizing money. That's a very small thing that's happening now."

If the highway patrolman has even a suspicion that something fishy is going on, they have the legal right to seize any cash or goods that they think were used in a crime. The deployment of the ERAD system now opens up digital funds to the police, meaning money can be immediately taken electronically on the spot, thanks to civil asset forfeiture laws.

Licence to steal

The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 gave police the right to seize goods assumed to be associated with crime without making an arrest or even charging the suspect involved. The value of the seizures is split between the state and federal governments.

Because it's a civil and not a criminal statute, the burden of proof required for seizures is minimal, requiring an officer's suspicion alone and putting the burden of proof on the plaintiff. It is possible to appeal the decision in court, but it's often a long and expensive legal process to do so.

Between 2001 and 2014, the US government confiscated $29bn using the laws, and their use is mushrooming. In 2014 alone, police took $4.5bn using the statutes, surpassing the cost of burglaries ($3.9bn that year, according to the FBI) for the first time.

Oklahoma police are enthusiastic users of the laws. In April, officers from Muskogee county seized $53,249 in cash from a Christian rock band after stopping their tour bus for having a broken tail light. They gave the money back after the media started reporting the case; now politicians have got involved.

Politicians wake up and smell the votes

State Senator Kyle Loveless (R-OK) has promised new legislation to require that police obtain a conviction before taking funds. He said he has had multiple reports of police abusing their powers for profit.

"We've seen single moms' stuff be taken, a cancer survivor his drugs taken, we saw a Christian band being taken. We've seen innocent people's stuff being taken. We've seen where the money goes and how it's been misspent," he said.

"If I had to err on the side of one side versus the other, I would err on the side of the Constitution," Loveless said. "And I think that's what we need to do."

Other state governments are also waking up to this issue. In April, Maryland became the ninth US state to enact laws ending the practice, and 11 more have bills in progress to block asset forfeiture until a conviction has been obtained.

In the meantime, ERAD is trying to sell its reader to more local and state police. So if you see flashing blue lights in the rear view mirror, expect to be asked for your license, registration, and wallet. ®

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