Civil asset forfeiture goes digital: Police tool swipes money from cards before conviction

© Charles Duggar
Confiscating cash or property without a conviction or charges is now old hat for law enforcement. Stand by for the Electronic Recovery and Access to Data machine (ERAD), a device that sucks digital money off prepaid cards and into police accounts.

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol purchased 16 ERADs and began using them last month. In instances where troopers suspect a prepaid, debit, credit or virtually any card with a magnetic strip has been used in a crime, they can take the card and slide it through their new machine to generate information on the account – as well as either freeze or transfer the digital funds.

Following the same principle as the practice of civil asset forfeiture, no person need be convicted or even charged with a specific offense for the law enforcement officer to deem the property, even in digital form, to be worthy of confiscation.

"We're gonna look for different factors in the way that you're acting,” Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. John Vincent told KWTV. “We're gonna look for if there's a difference in your story. If there's some way that we can prove that you're falsifying information to us about your business."

While prepaid cards are the primary target, as the ERAD device was first developed at the request of the US Department of Homeland Security to combat drug cartels, the technology is far-reaching. Any card with a magnetic strip, down to a hotel key, is susceptible. And the cards, when swiped, are technically being fooled, as the ERAD sends a signal disguised as a regular vendor request, so as to not alert the suspect, according to the product’s patent.

"I know that a lot of people are just going to focus on the seizing money,” Vincent continued, adding, “The biggest benefit has been the identity theft."

Prepaid cards, however, are not typically targeted by identity thieves, as they are only activated after adding money to them. But the lieutenant offers a way out for those wrongfully ensnared by the ERAD policy.

"If you can prove can prove that you have a legitimate reason to have that money it will be given back to you. And we've done that in the past," Vincent said.

Not only did ERAD receive $5,000 from the Oklahoma Highway Patrol for the software, the company will also get a kickback, 7.7 percent of any seized value, according to KWTV.

Republican State Senator Kyle Loveless of Oklahoma City opposes the policy, citing constitutional protections of due process and the traditional presumption that suspects are innocent until proven guilty.

"We've seen single mom's stuff be taken, a cancer survivor his drugs taken, we saw a Christian band being taken. We've seen innocent people's stuff being taken. We've seen where the money goes and how it's been misspent," Loveless told KWTV.

Loveless promises to submit his own bill in the next legislative session to require a conviction before confiscation.