Published December 16, 2015 by Ziva Branstetter, Cary Aspinwall (The Frontier/NewsOn6)
Nearly 300 of the cases involved cash, totaling at least $170,000 taken from citizens, analysis by The Frontier shows.
The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office has been allowed to seize cash and guns from nearly 1,000 citizens during searches and arrests under a law designed for dealing with unclaimed property rather than using the state’s forfeiture process, an investigation by The Frontier has found.
The cash, weapons and other property along with their “last known owners” were listed on an 81-page court filing by the sheriff’s office on Sept. 23. The sheriff’s office seized the items during arrests and investigations since 2005 but did not file individual civil forfeiture actions that would have allowed the agency to confiscate them in some cases.
Instead, the Sheriff’s Office asked a judge to order the items “forfeited to the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office for official use, sale, donation or destruction” under a law dealing with lost property in the sheriff’s possession. Nearly 300 of the cases involved cash, totaling at least $170,000 taken from citizens, analysis by The Frontier shows.
The filing states that the sheriff “is in possession of certain stolen, embezzled, lost, abandoned or otherwise obtained personal property” and “has exercised due diligence to locate the last known owners of each and every item.”
About a dozen people showed up to a hearing in Tulsa County District Court on Wednesday and asked District Judge Mary Fitzgerald to return their money and weapons. In most cases, those who attended the hearing had not been charged with a crime and in others, charges had been dropped or expunged.
Fitzgerald questioned each person about how the Sheriff’s Office came into possession of the property and whether drugs or other crimes were involved. The state law on which the Sheriff’s Office is relying makes no mention of such a litmus test in determining whether claimants can have their property returned.
During the hearing, Fitzgerald agreed to return property to a handful of people and denied other requests because the claimants could not prove ownership.
One woman said the $600 she was seeking was money she received from H&R Block after filing her tax return. Another said she had given her boyfriend cash to go Christmas shopping and the money was taken by the Sheriff’s Office when he was arrested.
More than 900 people who were listed as owners of the cash and weapons were either not aware of the hearing or chose not to contest the seizures.
Attorney Thomas Mortensen attended the hearing on behalf of 14 people on the sheriff’s “unclaimed personal property” list. He repeatedly objected to the process, saying those making claims had not received a hearing where evidence of a crime was presented.
“The Sheriff’s Office is saying that it came into possession of this money because it was lost or abandoned. It’s not,” he told Fitzgerald.
Meredith Baker, general counsel for the Sheriff’s Office, asked whether a continuance was needed to discuss the issue.
Fitzgerald said a hearing had already occurred in November and that Wednesday’s hearing was a continuance of that to give people more time to gather proof of ownership. She called Mortensen’s position “highly unusual.”
“I don’t appreciate you counsel saying there was no hearing. … I allowed all of them to come up here and talk to me.”Follow @FortySixNews