‘Highway robbers’: How a trip to buy farmland ended with police taking all his cash

A Vietnamese immigrant and his business partner are fighting to get back more than $100,000 seized by Oklahoma police who allege that it was drug money.

10/16/2021 7:20:00 PM

After a trip where he expected to buy farmland, a Vietnamese immigrant and his business partner are fighting to get back more than $100,000 seized by Oklahoma police who allege that it was drug money.

A Vietnamese immigrant and his business partner are fighting to get back more than $100,000 seized by Oklahoma police who allege that it was drug money.

in Canadian County between 2010 and 2015 involved minorities. Nine other counties in Oklahoma, including the six largest, had roughly the same percentage over that five-year time period, according to Oklahoma Watch.Megan Lambert, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said she found the figures on cash forfeitures and race “in no way surprising.”

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“Racism and implicit bias have a greater impact where discretion is allowed, and police enjoy a significant amount of discretion over civil asset forfeitures,” she said. “The lack of accountability or transparency and the perverse financial incentives of civil asset forfeiture make the process ripe for abuse and bias.”

“Highway robbers”More than 30 states have instituted reforms in recent years to protect people from civil asset forfeiture, such as shifting the burden of proof to the authorities. Others — like New Mexico, North Carolina, Nebraska and Maine — have abolished it all together.

But Oklahoma is not among the states to take significant action to curtail the practice.It has among the worst civil forfeiture laws in the country, according to the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based public interest law firm that releases reports grading state forfeiture laws. Oklahoma earned a D-minus grade in the latest

Institute for Justice report, which cited the low bar for confiscating cash and the large incentive created by the seized money going directly to the law enforcement agencies themselves.“The government just has to show by a preponderance of evidence, or more likely than not, the property is connected to illegal activity,” said Dan Alban, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “That’s a very low burden of proof. It effectively places the burden on the property owner to prove their own innocence.”

Canadian County straddles Interstate 40, a major drug trafficking corridor that runs from California to the North Carolina coast. The county sheriff’s office and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol devote substantial resources to combating it. Butcivil liberties lawyers

and local defense attorneys argue that law enforcement uses the focus on drug interdiction as cover for stopping and searching vehicles on flimsy pretenses.William Campbell, an Oklahoma City-based defense attorney with expertise challenging civil forfeitures, said in any other context the officers, who are known to target cars with out of state license plates, would be seen as “common highway robbers.”

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“It doesn’t matter whether you’re innocent or anything else,” said Campbell. “They’re going to do whatever they’re going to do — generally in the dark, on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere — where you as the citizen are completely at their mercy.”

“District attorneys fund their offices with this money,” he added. “When the DA is making half a million or more off of these stops, how can they be an honest broker on whether these stops are good? They have no incentive to stop this.”Canadian County Sheriff Chris West declined to comment on the use of civil forfeiture or the case of Liu and Thai. A well-known figure in Oklahoma, West faced controversy earlier this year when it emerged that he

attended the Jan. 6 rally in Washingtonprotesting former President Trump’s election loss. He said he walked to the Capitol but did not enter the building or participate in mob violence.Calls to District Attorney Michael Fields’ office were referred to the prosecutor handling the case, Mitchell Thrower, who did not respond to a request for comment. At a 2015 hearing for a doomed bill to reform civil forfeiture laws in Oklahoma, Fields voiced his opposition to legislation that would, among other things, prohibit forfeiture without a conviction. ​​

“Asset forfeiture is the only tool at our disposal that allows us to take drugs off the streets and profits out of the hands of those who only seek more drugs, more money and more lives to destroy,” Fields said.Four decades of savingsThai said he was 16 when he arrived in the U.S. on a boat from Vietnam in 1986. After graduating high school in Albuquerque, he attended community college and then worked at Intel for 16 years as a technical engineer and data analyst. He went on to open and run a restaurant, the Asian Grill, until 2019.

Thai says he saved a chunk of money over the years and largely eschewed banks. “In my culture, we use cash,” he said.Seeking a safe investment, he said he began studying vertical farming, which involves growing crops in vertical stacks using hydroponics, and looking around for a cheap piece of land to purchase. He found a partner in Liu, who he met through the Albuquerque restaurant scene.

“You never lose money if you buy a piece of farm land,” Thai said. “That’s why Bill Gates bought so much land.”Thai said he told the officers who grilled him that they had worked hard for their money and had no firm plans on what they were going to do with the land.

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“He kept asking where did the money come from? Where did I work?” Thai said. “I said, ‘I lived here a long time. I worked many years.’”After the interrogations were over and the deputies let the men go, they received no paperwork related to the forfeiture, Thai said. Campbell, the local defense lawyer not involved in the case, said law enforcement is supposed to issue property receipts detailing what was seized but doesn't always do so.

The Canadian County District Attorney filed a notice of forfeiture on April 22, which gave Thai and Liu 45 days to file a claim to the cash. Their attorney responded on May 10, denying that the money was connected to drug activity and asserting that the forfeiture violated their Fourth Amendment rights.

The lawyer for Thai and Liu, Richard Anderson, did not respond to requests for comment.Through a translator, Liu declined to comment.He was arrested in June 2017 after police found more than 600 marijuana plants at a house he was staying in with two others in Stockton, Calif. Liu, now 45, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of cultivating marijuana and served 30 days in the county jail, said a spokeswoman for the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office.

In the days after the Oklahoma traffic stop, a Canadian County prosecutor suggested to a local newspaper that the cash seizure was based on their intention to grow marijuana.Oklahoma legalized medical marijuana in 2018. Under state law, at least 75 percent of a medical marijuana business must be owned by an Oklahoma resident for it to be licensed.

“An out-of-state person, for example, can’t come to Oklahoma and start their own marijuana farm,” Canadian County Assistant District Attorney Eric Epplin told theYukon Progress, speaking generally about the case. “You have to be a resident of the state.”

The regulation allows for someone to move to the state and apply for a license after two years.Thai said he was aware of the licensing requirements but insisted that they weren’t set on growing cannabis.“That’s their narrative that they’re using against us,” he said of the police and prosecutors.

“We saw it as a good investment,” he added. “We didn’t know yet what we were going to do. It could be anything — it could be marijuana, it could be something else.”James Todd, an Oklahoma City defense lawyer who is not involved in the case, said he thinks prosecutors may have a tough time proving the men intended to use the land to start an illegal drug operation.

“I don’t see in this case anything other than a ‘he said, she said’ situation, where the state says they intended to grow marijuana without a license and the men say no they weren’t,” said Todd, who worked as a detective and state prosecutor in Oklahoma before becoming a defense attorney.

A pre-trial court hearing has been set for Oct. 20. Thai, meanwhile, has set his sights on a new venture closer to home: a bubble tea shop in Albuquerque."I’ve been living here since 1986 and worked hard for four decades,” Thai said. “I just want my money back.”

Rich SchapiroRich Schapiro is a reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit. Read more: NBC News »

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This article breaks down forfeitures by race and notes that Canadian County is 75% white. However, it goes on to cite an expert who says that police target out-of-state vehicles, so Canadian County’s racial mix is moot. That said, this looks like a gross injustice. Who in their right mind transports 140k in cash? Who would except it? Funny in my experience those with illegal sources tend to have large amount of money as they are trying to get around IRS reporting requirements. Also what did they do for a living.


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