UPDATE: On Monday afternoon, Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge dropped both the civil and criminal charges against Eh Wah. In an interview with The Washington Post, Loge said “I looked at the case and met with the officers, and determined that we would not be able to meet the burden of proof in the criminal case and in the civil case.” Loge said a check for the full amount of money taken from Eh Wah will be mailed to Eh Wah’s lawyers as soon as possible.
The original story follows.
Eh Wah had been on the road for 12 hours when he saw the flashing lights in his rear-view mirror.
The 40-year-old Texas man, a refugee from Burma who became a U.S. citizen more than a decade ago, was heading home to Dallas to check on his family. He was on a break from touring the country for months as a volunteer manager for the Klo & Kweh Music Team, a Christian rock ensemble from Burma, also known as Myanmar. The group was touring the United States to raise funds for a Christian college in Burma and an orphanage in Thailand.
Eh Wah managed the band’s finances, holding on to the cash proceeds it raised from ticket and merchandise sales at concerts. By the time he was stopped in Oklahoma, the band had held concerts in 19 cities across the United States, raising money via tickets that sold for $10 to $20 each.
The sheriff’s deputies in Muskogee County, Okla., pulled Eh Wah over for a broken tail light about 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 27. The deputies started asking questions — a lot of them. And at some point, they brought out a drug-sniffing dog, which alerted on the car. That’s when they found the cash, according to the deputy’s affidavit.
There was the roughly $33,000 from ticket sales and donations, much of it earmarked for the religious college back in Burma, according to Eh Wah and the band members.
There was the $1,000 in cash donations to the orphanage in Thailand, small bills bundled in two or three dozen sealed envelopes with the orphanage’s name written on them.
There was $8,000 in cash from the band’s CD and souvenir sales. A $9,000 cash gift to one of the band’s members from his family and friends in Buffalo — cash that Eh Wah says he didn’t even know was in the blue and white gift bag he had been asked to hold. And $2,000 in cash for Eh Wah and the band’s incidental expenses on the trip: meals and tolls, for example.
All told, the deputies found $53,000 in cash in Eh Wah’s car that night. Muskogee County Sheriff Charles Pearson said he couldn’t comment on the particulars of Eh Wah’s case because of the open investigation, but it is clear from his deputy’s affidavit that the officers didn’t like Eh Wah’s explanation for how he got the cash. “Inconsistent stories,” the affidavit notes. Despite the positive alert from the drug-sniffing dog, no drugs, paraphernalia or weapons were found. Just the cash.
They took Eh Wah to the police station for more questioning. They let him drive his own car there, with deputies’ vehicles in front of and behind him the whole way. They interrogated him for several hours.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Eh Wah said in an interview. “An officer was telling me that ‘you are going to jail tonight.’ And I don’t know what to think. What did I do that would make me go to jail? I didn’t do anything. Why is he saying that?”
Eh Wah tried to explain himself, but he had difficulty because English isn’t his first language. He says he had a hard time understanding the officers, and they had a hard time understanding him. He told them about the band and his role with it and how he had been entrusted with the cash. He even had the officers call one of the band’s leaders, Saw Marvellous Soe, who had decamped to Miami while the band was on a break.
Marvellous saw Eh Wah’s number on his phone, but when he answered, he was surprised to hear someone speaking with a thick Southern drawl that he could barely understand — “like in the movies,” Marvellous said in an interview.
“The police officer started asking questions,” Marvellous recalled. “I explained: ‘We are a music team. We came here for a tour.'” Marvellous tried to explain that the band was from Burma.
“He kept telling me, ‘You are wrong, you are wrong,'” Marvellous said. “Everything I said, [he said,] ‘You are wrong.’ I said: ‘We are doing a good thing! And now you are accusing us of being like a drug dealer or something like that.'”
After that phone call, Eh Wah began to realize that no matter what he did or said, he wouldn’t be able to satisfy the officers’ questions. “I realized that they were seizing all of the money. I was like, ‘This can’t be happening.’ But I didn’t know what to do.”
The officers ended up taking all of the money — all $53,249 of it. “Possession of drug proceeds,” the property receipt reads. But they let Eh Wah go. They didn’t charge him with a crime that night, instead sending him back on the road about 12:30 a.m., with the broken tail light.
What happened to Eh Wah is known as civil asset forfeiture. It comes from a relatively obscure corner of the law that allows authorities to seize cash and property from people they suspect of a crime. In most states, and under federal law, authorities get to keep the proceeds regardless of whether the person is ever convicted, or even charged, with criminal wrongdoing.
Under civil forfeiture, the burden of proof is on the property owner to prove their innocence to get their stuff back. This turns the common criminal-law principle on its head: When it comes to civil forfeiture, you are guilty until proven innocent.
Two years ago a wide-ranging Washington Post investigation shined a spotlight on the practice, finding that, since Sept. 11, 2001, more than $2.5 billion in cash seizures had occurred on the nation’s highways without either a search warrant or an indictment. Those findings prompted some limited steps toward reform at the federal level.
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