OKLAHOMA CITY — Though the overall amount of collections from forfeited cash and property decreased in 2018, most district attorneys’ offices across the state actually saw an increase in forfeiture funds, an analysis by The Frontier found.
Overall, district attorneys’ offices in Oklahoma collected less money from forfeited cash and property, bogus check fees and probation fees in 2018 compared to the previous year, but most of that figure was due to a steep decline in forfeiture revenue in Oklahoma County.
Last week, Gov. Kevin Stitt said he would like to see a change in the way district attorney’s offices are funded, sending collections for fines, fees and certain court costs that go directly into district attorney revolving funds sent instead to the Legislature to be appropriated to prosecutors.
Currently less than half of the money funding Oklahoma prosecutors’ offices come from funds appropriated by the Legislature. The rest comes mostly from revenue from special court fees, probation and supervision programs, forfeiture of cash and property and fees on bogus check cases.
District attorneys collected a total of $7.1 million from cash and property seized by law enforcement and forfeited in fiscal year 2018, compared to $7.7 million the previous fiscal year, the data shows. Civil asset forfeiture laws allow law enforcement to seize cash believed to be involved in the drug trade from individuals, even if the individual is not arrested or charged in some cases, as well as property that was used in a crime. Usually, the district attorney brings a civil case in district court to take ownership of the money.
Eleven of the state’s 27 district attorneys’ offices saw a decline in the amount of forfeited cash and property in fiscal year 2018, one remained unchanged from the previous year, while 14 offices saw an increase in forfeited cash and property.
The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office more than doubled the amount of cash and property it seized during Fiscal Year 2018, going from a little more than $519,000 the previous year to nearly $1.2 million the following year, the data shows. District 21, which covers Cleveland, Garvin and McClain counties, nearly doubled — going from about $335,000 in 2017 to $666,000. District 1 (Beaver, Cimarron, Harper and Texas counties) also saw a significant increase from the previous year, going from around $439,000 in forfeitures to around $769,000.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler’s office saw the largest increase.
About half of the $7.1 million seized and forfeited, or $3.7 million, went to district attorneys’ offices, the District Attorney Council data shows. The remainder was distributed to other law enforcement agencies.
Much of the decline in forfeiture totals came thanks to a significant drop in the cash and property seized and forfeited in Oklahoma County, which fell by $1.2 million over the period to a little more than $2 million, the data shows. The district attorney’s office kept about $824,000 of that, with the rest distributed to other law enforcement agencies.
About half of the $7.1 million seized and forfeited, or $3.7 million, went to district attorneys offices, the District Attorney Council data shows. The remainder was distributed to other law enforcement agencies.
Meanwhile, the overall amount of district attorney revenue from probation and supervision services also fell by about $1 million, from $13.5 million to $12.5 million in Fiscal Year 2018, the data shows. Supervision fees, which average about $40 per month per person for both misdemeanor and felony offenders sentenced to probation, had also fallen by about $1 million the prior year as well.
Overall, some of the revenue declines could be part of a broader awareness by the courts of the issues faced by individuals who are unable to afford fines and fees associated with going to court, said Trent Baggett, executive coordinator for the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Council.
“I think people have become perhaps a little gun shy about it,” Baggett said. “I think that can play a role in that.”
District Attorney revenue from prosecuting bogus checks continued its decline in 2018, falling from about $4.3 million the previous year to $3.4 million, the data shows. Unlike the other two programs, the amount of money brought in by bogus check collections have been on a steady decline for years. In fiscal year 2013, the program brought in nearly $7.5 million, according to records from the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Council.
Because fewer people write checks nowadays, there are fewer bogus checks being brought to district attorney’s offices for prosecution, Baggett said.
“Those continue to decline, and they have for about the last 10 to 12 years. That’s one that’s dying on the vine,” Baggett said. “Is that going to be one that’s going to dry up and completely blow away? I don’t know, but I do think it’s going to continue to dwindle and dwindle.”
One new stream of revenue for district attorneys’ offices is the Uninsured Vehicle Enforcement Diversion Program, which uses automated license plate readers to check whether a vehicle is insured. The fees collected under the program go to district attorney’s offices, though there have been some issues with drivers who do have insurance being caught up in the program.
Prosecutor offices have seen declining revenue from the Legislature over recent years. Though district attorneys received about $4 million in additional funding this year, most of that went to state employee pay increases and to pay for victim and witness coordinators, Baggett said.
Between January 2014 and January 2019, the number of assistant district attorneys in the state dropped from 294 to 238, Baggett said. Meanwhile, the number of case filings increased by 2.1 percent, to 126,000 across the state in 2018, meaning case loads increased by about 525 additional cases individually, he said.
“That’s a lot, and that’s on top of the cases they didn’t finish from the previous year,” Baggett said.
Baggett said many district attorneys are looking forward to discussions with the Stitt administration to better understand what his proposal for state prosecutors’ offices is.
“I know that the … vast majority of DAs would say ‘hey, you want to take those fees and fund my office 100 percent or close to it? Have at it. We would love it. That would be a terrific thing,” Baggett said. “I think they would love to be able to focus more on the cases they have as opposed to some of these other issues they have going on.”