"Civil asset forfeiture" is a situation in which law enforcement is permitted to seize property and cash from a citizen without first proving that they actually committed a crime. The only caveat is that the property in question must be suspected of being tied to a crime.
Forfeiture is one of the most controversial aspects of criminal justice in the United States, with legislators in many different states now acting to reform the highly-abused practice. New Mexico, Montana and New Hampshire have all recently passed laws which require a conviction before property can be forfeited, Radley Balko of The Washington Post reports.
In other states, the tide is turning in the opposite direction and making forfeiture even easier for law enforcement. In Oklahoma, the Highway Patrol now reportedly possesses a technology which allows them to seize money on prepaid cards or in one's bank account.
The device is called the Electronic Recovery and Access to Data machine, or ERAD. State police have begun using 16 of the devices in May, according to News9.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. John Vincent said of the new technology:
We're gonna look for different factors in the way that you're acting. We're gonna look for if there's a difference in your story. If there's someway that we can prove that you're falsifying information to us about your business.
Vincent addressed the concern -- corroborated by real evidence in many circumstances -- that law enforcement will simply use the technology as an excuse to pad agency budgets:
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. The largest part that we have found ... the biggest benefit has been the identity theft.
... If you can prove can prove that you have a legitimate reason to have that money it will be given back to you. And we've done that in the past.
Many observers are not buying it. Republican State Sen. Kyle Loveless said there have been numerous cases where Oklahoma police have abused the existing forfeiture system.
"We've seen single mom's stuff be taken, a cancer survivor his drugs taken, we saw a Christian band being taken," Loveless said, according to News9. "We've seen innocent people's stuff being taken. We've seen where the money goes and how it's been misspent."
Loveless also took issue with the fact that the forfeiture system operates under the belief that the suspect is guilty until proven innocent.
He add that he plans to introduce legislation next session that would abolish civil forfeiture in its current form and require a conviction.
The new technology is already proving very controversial and will likely face multiple legal and legislative challenges over the course of the next few years.