Hearing this Thursday in Canadian County cash seizure case

DA alleges funds tied to illegal drug transaction; N.M. men challenge in court

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By Conrad Dudderar
Staff Writer

Some 18 months after the case was filed, a court hearing is set next week on two men’s challenge to the Canadian County District Attorney’s application to seize $131,500 in U.S. currency.

The funds were confiscated from New Mexico’s Weichuan Liu and Nang Thai in April 2021 by Canadian County sheriff’s deputies after a traffic stop on Interstate 40 in El Reno.

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Liu and Thai had driven to Oklahoma and reportedly planned to use the funds to buy and upgrade property in Caddo County.

Mike Fields

A notice of seizure and intended forfeiture was filed April 22, 2021, by District Attorney Michael J. Fields. The petitioner asserts the funds were being used or could be traced to an illegal drug transaction.

In their court-filed answer, claimants Liu and Thai state the currency was “unlawfully seized” and taken from them in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article II Section 30 of the Oklahoma Constitution.

Attorney Richard W. Anderson, representing the claimants, filed a motion Oct. 12 asking District Judge Jack D. McCurdy II to “enter summary judgment in their favor as there are no genuine issues of material fact.”

Judge McCurdy will consider the motion for summary judgment at a Nov. 10th hearing, set to begin at 11 a.m. McCurdy on Oct. 19 issued an order allowing the case to remain on the court docket.

There had been no activity in the court file since May 10, 2021, when the claimants’ attorney filed a motion to enter the case on the nonjury docket.

On April 19, 2021, the claimants were traveling eastbound on I-40 when their vehicle was stopped for speeding by the Canadian County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff’s deputies searched the vehicle and seized U.S. currency found inside, stating the amount was $131,500.

“No receipt was provided to either of the occupants of the vehicle,” according to the claimants’ brief in support of the motion for summary judgment. “To date no criminal charges have been filed on either of the vehicle occupants or anyone else.”

As grounds for the forfeiture, the Canadian County District Attorney’s Office has alleged the currency:

  • Was furnished or intended to be furnished in exchange for a controlled dangerous or is traceable to such an exchange;
  • Were monies that were used, or intended to be used, to facilitate a violation of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act;
  • Is a thing of value that was acquired during a period of one or more violations of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, or within a reasonable time after such period.

Liu and Thai have denied these allegations in their court-filed responses.

The claimants objected to the petitioner seeking to “shift the burden of proof” and to being “required to furnish the source of or intended use” of the currency.

They also objected to the seizure “because it was accomplished in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights,” according to the brief.

The claimants have further claimed the “unlawful seizure worked irreparable harm to them because they lost out on the lawfully intended business investment the currency was intended to finance.”

Liu and Thai, through their attorney, contend the actual amount seized was $141,500. They seek a judgment in that amount, along with attorney fees, interest and other relief deemed just.

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DA FILES RESPONSE

Assistant District Attorney Austin T. Murrey, on behalf of DA Fields, filed a response Oct. 27 to the claimants’ motion for summary judgment.

The petitioner is asking Judge McCurdy to deny summary judgment “as there exist genuine issues of material fact.”

A brief in support of the petitioner’s motion refers to the April 2021 traffic stop in which the claimants “gave inconsistent versions of the purpose of their travel, and also stated a destination for which they were traveling the wrong direction.”

Thai allegedly contradicted himself when he first said he knew Liu for seven years and his family even longer, then saying he only knew Liu’s family once questions turned to criminal history.

“When asked if Liu came to Oklahoma to be involved in the marijuana business, Thai said that he did not know,” according to the brief. “When asked if there were any large sums of money in the vehicle, Thai stated ‘No,’ and clarified that he had $7,000 in a backpack in the car.”

A certified drug dog gave a positive alert to the odor of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and/or methamphetamine coming from the vehicle, according to an arrest warrant affidavit signed by a Canadian County sheriff’s investigator.

Deputies found large amounts of cash in the center console, backpack and trunk.

In an interview with deputy Jason Skaggs, Thai reportedly claimed he was traveling to Oklahoma to invest in land.

“This is consistent with a pattern of non-Oklahoma residents traveling here to contribute funds and proceeds to illegal marijuana grow operations,” according to the petitioner’s brief. “Thai also states that maybe he will use the money to buy a house, and again denies knowing about the larger total amount of money found in the car.”

In his interview with the sheriff’s deputy, Liu first allegedly claimed to have $100,000, then $130,000. He also allegedly claimed to have come to Oklahoma to buy a house, which was inconsistent with any reason stated during the traffic stop.

The sheriff’s office investigation revealed extensive cash transactions “consistent with illegal drug activity” and that Liu does not possess a license to operate a lawful marijuana business in Oklahoma or California, according to the brief.

“Further investigation of the cell phones seized from the car revealed photographs and text messages showing ongoing marijuana cultivation on a large scale.”

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