Oklahoma Cops Can Now Seize Funds From Prepaid Debit Cards Without Filing Charges

By Zachary Siegel 07/21/16

In yet another blow to the Fourth Amendment, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol can now seize money on prepaid cards if they suspect the person's holdings are tied to a crime.

Oklahoma Cops Can Now Seize Funds From Prepaid Debit Cards Without Filing Charges

Consider civil asset forfeiture a fixture on a cop's tool belt, that allows them to seize property (cars, cash, your home) that they suspect has been involved in or gained from certain criminal activity, even if no crime has been committed. 

Because of this legal weapon, a simple traffic stop can cost you everything. There are numerous horror stories of people losing thousands of dollars because of forfeiture abuses. It’s a problem that has prompted drug policy advocates to speak out for abolishing such broad use of power, which tend to disproportionately hurt people of color and those in poverty. 

Civil asset forfeiture can be extremely lucrative for police departments. 

If this sounds bad, it gets much worse. Oklahoma Highway Patrol has taken to seizing money on prepaid cards by using what’s called an ERAD (Electronic Recovery and Access to Data) machine, Oklahoma News 9 reported

Basically, if a highway patrol trooper suspects a person's holdings are tied to a crime, they can scan and seize the money if it’s on a prepaid card. If you’re curious why this is raising eyebrows, keep in mind who is most likely to make use of a prepaid card. They’re typically used by low-income Americans, by people who don’t have bank accounts but need to make purchases using a card as opposed to cash. 

The circumstances under which such technology is being used is purposefully broad. "We're gonna look for different factors in the way that you're acting,” Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. John Vincent told News 9. If highway patrol is even remotely suspicious of your behavior, that’s enough justification for them to access your prepaid card. 

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Matt Miller, managing director at the Institute for Justice, said this is a major breach of the Fourth Amendment. Miller described how people use prepaid cards as though they’re mini bank accounts. Whatever money you have, you may put it on the card, which, in effect, gives an Oklahoma trooper access to your money without having to first get a warrant. With one scan, your money may go to the department’s budget. 

Miller likened the ERAD machine to the Stingray, an invasive cell phone surveillance device that can trace and track phone calls, in that once one police department gains new technology, many more are likely to follow. 

It turns out Miller is on to something. As of now, law enforcement divisions in at least 25 states are quietly using ERAD devices. 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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