Claimants’ request nixed in cash seizure case

Judge denies New Mexico pair’s motion for summary judgment

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By Conrad Dudderar
Staff Writer

EL RENO – On the eve of his retirement, a Canadian County judge rejected a request by two New Mexico men to rule in their favor in a cash seizure case.

Jack D. McCurdy

District Judge Jack D. McCurdy II on Nov. 29 signed an order denying claimants Weichuan Liu and Nang Thai’s motion for summary judgment.

Liu and Thai have sued District Attorney Mike Fields for the return of $131,500 confiscated by Canadian County sheriff’s deputies in April 2021 after a traffic stop on Interstate 40 in El Reno.

Fields, as the petitioner, filed an application for forfeiture of contraband in Canadian County District Court asserting the funds were being used – or could be traced – to an illegal drug transaction.

“The court, after hearing the arguments of counsel, reviewing the briefs and responses of the parties, as well as the case law cited by the parties and the case law reviewed by the court, finds that the defendants’ motion for summary judgment should be and is hereby denied,” Judge McCurdy ruled.

McCurdy found the admissions should be withdrawn pursuant to state law as requested by the petitioner because “the merits of the action will be subserved thereby” and claimants Liu and Thai have not shown a “prejudice” if they are withdrawn.

“With the admissions withdrawn, there are facts that are in issue and summary judgment is not appropriate,” the judge wrote in his court order.

This civil case is being reassigned to another judge because McCurdy retired Nov. 30 after 15 years as a member of Canadian County’s judiciary.

Special Judge Khristan K. Strubhar has been elected to succeed McCurdy as Canadian County’s District 2 district judge. She will begin a four-year term in January 2023.

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‘UNLAWFULLY SEIZED’

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

The claimants, represented by attorney Richard W. Anderson, allege 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.

In their court-filed responses, Liu and Thai have denied the Canadian County District Attorney’s allegations that 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’s and Thai’s attorney on Oct. 12 filed the motion for summary judgment claiming, “there are no genuine issues of material fact.”

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 their motion for summary judgment. “To date no criminal charges have been filed on either of the vehicle occupants or anyone else.”

Liu and Thai 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.”

The claimants, 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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PROPERTY INVESTMENT?

Assistant District Attorney Austin T. Murrey, in an Oct. 27th response to the claimants’ motion for summary judgment, argued “there exist genuine issues of material fact.”

Judge McCurdy recently agreed.

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.”

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 allegedly 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.”

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.”