After a wave of media pressure, Muskogee District Attorney Orvil Loge agreed Monday to drop a civil forfeiture case against the volunteer American tour manager of a Christian rock band of Karen people from Burma and Thailand who was accused of drug trafficking.
"We are thrilled that District Attorney Loge has dropped the criminal case against Eh Wah and offered to return the money to the band, the church and the orphanage. The intense public scrutiny generated by this outrageous case led to justice being served. Unfortunately, civil forfeiture laws allow property to be seized from innocent people every day in this country. The law allows this to occur and most people do not have the media or pro bono counsel to fight it. Absent the extraordinary circumstances of this case, that property is almost always forfeited and lost for good, even if no one is charged with or convicted of a crime," Institute for Justice attorney Dan Alban said in the statement.
The announcement comes just a day after the Institute for Justice decided to represent Wah in the case pro bono.
In an earlier statement the organization explained that Wah's nightmare began on Feb. 27 at about 6:30 p.m. when he was pulled over in Muskogee, Oklahoma, for having a broken brake light.
In an affidavit about the stop, a Muskogee deputy charged that a drug sniffer dog got a positive alert on Wah's vehicle. During a search of the vehicle, police say they found $53,234 and decided to hold onto it because they weren't satisfied with Wah's explanation of how he got the money. Wah who is a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Karen community in Burma said he had trouble communicating with the officers because English isn't his first language.
"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," noted the deputy.
Wah and the band, who were on a five-month concert tour of the U.S., explained to The Washington Post that there was about $33,000 from ticket sales and donations from the tour and most of it was earmarked for the Christian college in Burma.
There was also $1,000 in cash donations for an orphanage in Thailand, $8,000 in cash from the band's CD and souvenir sales, as well as a $9,000 cash gift to one of the band's members from his family and friends in Buffalo. In addition, there was $2,000 in cash for Wah and the band's incidental expenses on the trip.
Civil asset forfeiture law, notes the Post, allowed Oklahoma authorities to seize the band's cash and property. Under these laws police can seize money or property from people they suspect of a crime. In most states, and under federal law, authorities can keep the proceeds regardless of whether the person is ever convicted, or even charged, with criminal wrongdoing. The burden of proof is on the property owner to prove their innocence to get their property back, says the Post.
Alban charged, however, that what happened to Wah was "a gross miscarriage of justice."
"Muskogee has no excuse for this gross miscarriage of justice. Based on next to no evidence, what started as an ordinary traffic stop turned into a nightmare. They turned a man's entire life upside down. It should have never come to this. This is a clear-cut case of abuse of power," he said.
"Not every civil forfeiture victim is a Christian orphanage or a world-renowned Burmese Christian band, but when even their money isn't safe, no one's money is safe from forfeiture abuse. This case illustrates that civil forfeiture laws are fundamentally unjust," he added.
Reacting to the decision, Wah said he hoped no one else would have to go through what he went through.
"This was an experience that no one should ever have to live through. It felt like something that would happen in a third-world country, but not in the United States. I'm just so happy that this is over and I hope that no one else will have to go through something like this," said Wah.
Matt Miller, senior attorney with the Institute of Justice, said cases like Wah's can be limited with civil forfeiture law reform.
"Earlier this year, Oklahoma rejected a bill that would have reformed the state's civil forfeiture laws to better protect property owners after law enforcement claimed there was no evidence the law was being abused," said Miller.
"This case shows that no one's property is safe from a forfeiture system that incentivizes police to take as much cash and property as possible while making it difficult for owners of that property to fight back. Civil forfeiture needs to end, or be radically reformed. It cannot come soon enough," he added.