More than six years after Oklahoma City police officers took nearly $120,000 from Quociong Da Ngo, they have finally been ordered to return the money to him. At the time, police used a process known as civil asset forfeiture to seize the money. This meant that, even though he was cleared of any crime, Ngo still had to fight in court to get his money back.
On Jan. 26, 2012, a police officer pulled Ngo over for using his turn signal for only a short time before changing lanes on Interstate 40 in Oklahoma City. Ngo was also driving 10 miles an hour below the speed limit. He explained to the officer that he had rented the car for a vacation and had traveled all the way from Florida, stopping in Georgia and Arkansas.
After examining the rental agreement, the officer asked to search the car. Ngo consented. The officer found cash amounting to $119,820 in three sealed bags. The police officer arrested Ngo, who was later charged with possession of drug proceeds. Additionally, law enforcement began civil asset forfeiture proceedings to take possession of the cash.
In May 2013, having found no evidence of drugs or any other criminal activities, law enforcement dropped the criminal charges against Ngo. However, they refused to return his money.
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process where law enforcement can seize property or cash suspected of being involved in criminal activity. In most states, neither a criminal conviction nor even criminal charges are necessary for seizure. In Oklahoma, for the courts to approve the seizure, law enforcement only had to show there was a “preponderance of the evidence” that suggested the money was linked to a violation of the Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Act (UCDSA). This standard is lower than the standard required in criminal cases, where something must be shown “beyond reasonable doubt.”
In Oklahoma, up to 100 percent of the proceeds of civil asset forfeiture seizures may be kept by law enforcement agencies. Since law enforcement can be the primary beneficiary of civil asset forfeiture procedures, this has led to accusations of “policing for profit” by groups across the political spectrum. These groups argue that the system incentivizes the police to carry out civil asset forfeitures. Between 2000 and 2014, the proceeds of civil asset forfeiture netted Oklahoma law enforcement agencies $98,986,490, which amounts to an average of $6,599,099 each year.
In Ngo’s case, prosecutors argued that the vacuum-sealed bags Ngo had stored his money in were, in fact, drug paraphernalia. The court disagreed, arguing prosecutors had shown no connection between the money and a violation of the UCDSA.
Even though the court ordered the state to give Ngo his money back, prosecutors appealed the decision, further dragging out the legal process.
The Oklahoma Court of civil appeals confirmed the decision of the lower court, saying “the state presented no evidence to support a nexus between the Defendant Currency and a violation of UCDSA Act.” The appeals court ordered the full amount of Ngo’s money be returned to him together with the interest earned since the money had been seized.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
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