Under civil forfeiture laws, Oklahoma law enforcement seized $53,000 in cash from a Burmese Christian band after pulling over one of its musicians.
A Texas man and his Burmese Christian band, who had $53,000 seized by law enforcement in Muskogee, Okla., in February will get their money back, the prosecutor said.
Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge confirmed Monday afternoon that civil and criminal charges filed against Eh Wah, a 40-year-old musician are going to be dropped.
“[Eh] Wah had court this morning and following court, I looked at the cases and the evidence and talked with the officers involved and concluded that I would not meet my burden of proof in the civil or criminal case, and it required me to act and dismiss [the case] and return the money,” Loge told The Daily Signal.
Dan Alban, one of the lawyers with the Institute for Justice who represented Eh Wah, said in a statement Monday that Eh Wah’s experience with civil forfeiture indicates the broader need for reform.
“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,” Alban said, adding:
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. 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.
Eh Wah, a refugee from Myanmar (formerly Burma) who resettled in Dallas in 1997, was traveling from Sioux Falls, S.D., to Dallas to see his family during a short break from a tour with Klo & Kweh Music Team, a band of Karen Christians.
The Karen people are an ethnic group in Myanmar, and many Karen refugees have resettled in the U.S.
Sheriff’s deputies with the Muskogee County Sheriff’s Department stopped Eh Wah for a broken taillight Feb. 27 and later discovered the musician was carrying more than $53,000 in cash—proceeds from the band’s concerts and donations it raised for an orphanage in Thailand and a nonprofit Christian college in Myanmar.
The sheriff’s department seized the cash under Oklahoma’s civil asset forfeiture laws and argued Eh Wah was in “possession of drug proceeds,” according to an affidavit filed by law enforcement.
When sheriff’s deputies department searched the car, however, they didn’t find drugs or drug paraphernalia.
The Muskogee County District Attorney’s Office moved to forfeit the money in March, and Eh Wah, represented by the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, challenged the seizure. The public interest law firm said Eh Wah could prove the cash came from ticket and merchandise sales, as well as donations from Karen Christians to the school and orphanage.
Eh Wah’s story had been covered widely in the media before the DA’s decision to drop the forfeiture case and return the cash.
“I was pretty shocked and scared,” Eh Wah told The Daily Signal of the experience. “I never believed anything like this would happen to me. All I did was help people. I have all the proof with me, so this is pretty unbelievable.”
The more than $53,000 in cash seized by the sheriff’s department came from money the Christian band collected during its shows and, according to the Institute for Justice, included:
- $32,000 from ticket sales and donations.
- $7,300 from CD and souvenir sales.
- $1,000 in donations to the orphanage in Thailand, bundled in envelopes marked with its name, Hsa Thoo Lei Orphanage.
- $10,980 given to bassist Saw Win Ston from family and friends in Buffalo, N.Y.
- $2,000 that belonged to Eh Wah, for travel and pocket money as he and the band toured.
The Institute for Justice represented Eh Wah, Saw Win Ston, Klo & Kweh Music Team, the Karen Christian Revival Church in Omaha, Neb., which sponsored the tour, and the Thai orphanage.
The Muskogee County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment.
After law enforcement discovered the cash in Eh Wah’s car and seized it, they brought the musician back to the sheriff’s station and questioned him for more than six hours.
Eh Wah says he told the sheriff’s deputies about the band and their nationwide tour. He explained why he had the money and where it came from, showed photos from concerts, and called the band’s leader, Saw Marvellous Soe, to vouch for him.
The sheriff’s department eventually released Eh Wah after midnight Feb. 28 without charging him with a crime. The department did, however, issue him a warning for the broken taillight.
“It’s pretty shocking and scary for me,” Eh Wah said. “It’s scary because of the way, growing up as a kid, you’re always taught to be a good kid. I always am trying to be a good kid my whole life. I never [drank] or smoked or anything. I’ve been accused and tried with things that I have no idea [of], and it’s pretty scary.”
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