An Oklahoma police chief had a message to President Donald Trump on a controversial tool that allows law enforcement to seize property without ever charging its owner with a crime: police can’t step on the rights of citizens, as the tool called civil asset forfeiture allows.
Stephen Mills, a police chief in Apache, Oklahoma, made his appeal to the president during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, on Friday morning.
Mills, who formerly served in the U.S. Army, has emerged as a staunch opponent of current civil asset forfeiture laws, especially in the Sooner State where the top echelons of law enforcement there have resisted efforts in the state Legislature to change state laws.
Civil forfeiture is a tool that allows law enforcement to seize property if they suspect it’s tied to a crime.
“President Trump, I want to thank your administration for your support of law enforcement,” he said. “I know you’re being told by other members of law enforcement and associated groups that asset forfeiture reform is a bad idea, that it’ll help the cartels and terrorists. I want you to know there are many of us out in the field who don’t agree with that sentiment.”
“As law enforcement officers, we can’t step on the rights of the citizens we are sworn to protect, under the guise of protecting them,” he continued. “This country was founded of the people, by the people, and for the people with certain unalienable rights. That’s what made this country strong, and that is what will make this country strong again.
Mills was referencing a meeting Trump held at the White House earlier this month with members of the law enforcement community. At the roundtable, the president was asked about congressional efforts to reform federal civil forfeiture laws, which stalled last year.
Trump appeared dismayed as to why policymakers at the state and federal levels would want to limit law enforcement’s ability to take a “huge stash of drugs,” and the president ultimately told the sheriffs they were “encouraged” to take property through civil forfeiture.
But for the broad coalition of organizations on the left and the right that oppose civil forfeiture, Trump’s comments presented them with the opportunity to educate the president on how the tool has been abused.
“We as police officers need to do our jobs, protecting the rights of the citizens,” Mills said. “You can’t serve a citizen while simultaneously depriving them of their naturally constitutional rights. One innocent victim is one too many and does way more damage than letting the criminal get away.”
The Apache police chief is uniquely positioned to speak about how law enforcement use civil forfeiture today.
While working as an agent with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, Mills said he watched federal and local law enforcement carry a television belonging to an elderly woman out of her house after they arrested her grandson, a drug dealer.
When Mills questioned the seizure, law enforcement told him the woman needed to prove the television wasn’t purchased using drug money.
Additionally, Mills, who operates a cattle ranch in Grady County, had his own Ford F-250 seized in 2010 after he lent it to a ranch hand he employed.
Mills, who cited an innocent owner defense, was able to get his truck back six months later, but his knowledge of the civil forfeiture system aided him in his fight.
“The average citizen wouldn’t have had the knowledge, the capacity, or the resources that I had being who I was to get the truck back and win that fight,” he said. “I was a federal law enforcement agent, and they were calling me a dirty cop. They were threatening me with criminal charges and treating me like a criminal, all because I was fighting for my rights and trying to get my property back.”
CPAC, the largest annual national gathering of conservative activists, runs from Wednesday to Saturday at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, just outside Washington.