Two New Mexico businessmen were driving on Interstate 40 through Oklahoma late at night in April, when the sheriff's deputy turned on his sirens and lights and stopped their BMW car.
They were Nang Thai as well as Weichuan Luu were headed to an accommodation near Oklahoma City. They had plans to get some rest before setting out in the early morning to finish closing on 10 acres of farmland they'd signed a contract to purchase for $100,000.
However, around 2.30 a.m. on the 19th of April the Canadian County Sheriff's deputy had been looking into their vehicle.
"We didn't understand why he pulled us over," said Thai 51-year-old Thai Vietnamese native as well as father to two children from Albuquerque. "I was driving under the speed limit."
They were not being aware at the time, but Thai as well as Liu were about to embark on an ordeal lasting hours which would see them with no money and in search of answers. Their story illustrates the controversial practice of law enforcement called civil asset forfeiture, a process in which the police are able to seize the cash of a person or any other property without the need to bring criminal charges.
The officer asked the two men to provide their drivers licenses, the places they were headed and if they were carrying cash according to Thai.
They were carrying a substantial sum of cash in their vehicle, over $100,000, which Thai says they took to pay for the house. Thai -who is fluent in English with a strong accent (Liu speaks no English at any point) -- informed the police officer that they were going to a hotel, and they had cash with their person.
The deputy claimed that he believed the suspects were engaged within "illegal activity," according to Thai. A background check for criminals could have revealed an indictment from 2017 against Liu for cultivating marijuana within California.
A second officer was also at the scene, men were transported into a station where they were detained for many hours. Police emptied a backpack and suitcase stuffed with cash. They then dismantled the interior of the BMW however, they found no weapons, drugs or any other items of a criminal nature.
Thai said he explained to his questioners they'd put aside the funds for a while and had plans to utilize the land for agriculture but weren't sure what crops to cultivate.
"They kept saying, 'This is illegal money,'" Thai claimed. "I thought, 'OK just prove that it was not illegal. We didn't have any illegal activities.'"
Two men were released without being charged or given a traffic ticket however, they were not issued a traffic ticket, but the Canadian County Sheriff's Office did not give them their money back. The court papers submitted by the District Attorney Michael Fields say the money was confiscated as it was destined to be used to break drug laws or resulted from illicit drug transactions.
The two men are fighting to retrieve it. In addition they argue that the amount that the sheriff's office declares it has confiscated at $131,500 is less than the $10,000 they had in their vehicle on the day.
"Now I have to prove I'm innocent, and they are the ones who illegally took my money and basically stole some of my money, too," stated Thai.
The court docket does not contain documents detailing the traffic stop, or the seizures of the vehicle, as well as neither sheriff's department or the district attorney's office has agreed to provide any information.
One of the people who is shocked by the twist of fate was the person who was scheduled to sell his property in order to Thai as well as Liu.
"I was shocked when I heard of the confiscation of their money," the seller said to NBC News.
He stated that he had had a meeting with them just a few days ago and had drawn an agreement to sell his property Thai in exchange for $100,000. NBC News has viewed a copy of the contract.
"They seemed like very nice and intelligent business people," said the seller who spoke on terms of anonymity. "I feel bad for them and the situation."
What transpired to Thai and Liu isn't at all unusual.
Law enforcement agencies, both local and federal, are able throughout the United States to take an individual's property when it is believed to be associated with criminal activities. Civil asset forfeiture allows authorities to seize items such as automobiles and cash, without the need to charge those who are forced to surrender their possessions.
Advocates for the practice claim it's a crucial tool in combating drug traffickers who are known for hiding money stolen from vehicles and other things. But those who oppose it across the political spectrum claim that it is a violation of constitutional rights and is disproportionately detrimental to those with low incomes and minorities that are at a higher risk be questioned by the police and are less inclined to possess the means to challenge seizures.
"Billions of dollars are taken yearly from citizens who are never charged with a crime, and are not afforded any of the due process provisions of the Constitution, such as a day in court, presumption of innocence, right to counsel, and an impartial jury," said Brad Cates, former director of the Justice Department's Asset Forfeiture Office during the Reagan Administration who is now an outspoken opponent on civil forfeiture.
This year local law enforcement authorities have taken greater than $1.3 million from motorists driving in Canadian County, according to an NBC News review of court records.
A majority of the cash seizures were made by minorities which included Asian people accounting for 23, Black 19 percent and Hispanic 16 percent. White people comprised 26,4 percent confiscations within Canadian County, which is more than 75 percent white.
Only 14 of 31 cash forfeitures resulting in criminal charges, which is 45 percent of the time, court records reveal.
In 2020, nearly 43 % of all the cash confiscations that were seized in Canadian County involved minorities. Black individuals accounted for 18.9, Hispanic 17 percent, Asian 7 percent, and whites 26 percent, as per an NBC News review. The cash seizures brought in over $1.8 million according to court records as well as 31 out of 53 cases resulted in criminal charges or the figure was 58 percent.
The significant proportion of minorities that are subject by cash seizure within Canadian County is not a recent trend.
The non-profit investigative news website Oklahoma Watch found that 60 percent of cash seizures within Canadian County between 2010 and 2015 targeted minorities. Other counties within Oklahoma which included six of the largest, had about the same amount of minorities over the five-year period, as per Oklahoma Watch.
Megan Lambert, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma She said that she was struck by the data on forfeitures of cash in addition to races "in no way surprising."
"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 explained. "The lack of accountability or transparency and the perverse financial incentives of civil asset forfeiture make the process ripe for abuse and bias."