Civil asset forfeiture, or civil forfeiture as it’s also known, is a process that allows law enforcement to confiscate private property that’s allegedly been involved in criminal activity, and then keep or sell it. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says, “Owners need not ever be arrested or convicted of a crime for their cash, cars, or even real estate to be taken away permanently by the government.” For example, if a police officer stops someone and finds that person has bags of marijuana in one pocket and $100 in the other, the officer can confiscate the cash, and the police department can spend it.
Kansans can still have their property seized in this manner, but a reform signed into law last year soon will provide transparency on those takings and more reform may be coming.
Last year’s legislation tasked the Kansas Bureau of Investigation with creating a website that details law enforcement seizures, including the types of property and their estimated value, whether criminal charges were filed, and how the agency used the funds collected through asset seizure. Kansas Bureau of Investigations Director Kirk Thompson told the House Judiciary Committee the site is nearing completion.
Rep. Gail Finney, (D) Wichita, championed the transparency law that will be used to track seizures.
“It’s exposing asset forfeiture to daylight,” she said. “Citizens are aware of seizures and they know it’s not correct. And they know there’s no due process.”
When it was signed last April, Finney called it a first step. She plans to introduce legislation that will require law enforcement to return assets seized from an individual who is not charged with a critme or is acquitted. Currently, those individuals must hire a lawyer and fight to have their assets returned to them, and that, according to Finney can be difficult and costly.
“Most civil asset forfeiture attorneys require that you have to have a significant amount of assets seized before they will even look at your case, at least $30,000,” she explained. “For some of us, $1,500 is a lot.”
She isn’t confident her bill will become law this session. Lawmakers may first want to have some data on how and when civil asset forfeitures are used by Kansas law enforcement.
“But we have to stand up and speak for the rights of Kansans,” she said.
The deadline to implement the public site, July 1, quickly approaches. Thompson says the KBI will meet it.
“We believe that will occur,” he said. The law requires law enforcement agencies to make reports within 30 days of a forfeiture. Agencies will begin reporting immediately, but Thompson lawmakers won’t have a full year of data until next February.
Lawmakers authorized the KBI to spend more than $300,000 on the website, but Thompson told the House Judiciary Committee that he believes the project will come in under budget. Thompson believes he’ll be able to return a substantial amount of money to lawmakers.
Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, suggested that KBI could probably use the leftover funds.
“Wouldn’t you rather we fund an agent or two?” He asked.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, (R) Olathe, said in a Choosing Freedom podcast interview, “…we all know [the current practice] isn’t right…” and wants the legislature to look at what other states have done and “…come up with a policy that’s right for our state.”
The Institute for Justice says fifteen states now require a criminal conviction for most or all civil forfeiture cases, including Missouri and Nebraska.