July 20, 2024

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‘Innocent Owner’ finally gets his Corvette back from Kansas Highway Patrol

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Richard Martinez will finally get his classic Corvette back — from the Kansas Highway Patrol.

Martinez bought the 1959 Corvette from an Indiana used car dealer in 2016, and when he went to have it inspected, the KHP decided it was “contraband” based on an altered Vehicle Identification Number.  The VIN ‘alteration’ issue is that it had been painted over as much as 40 years before in a previous restoration, something of which Martinez was unaware.  Still, KHP sized the vehicle and spent years trying to have the rare, valuable, classic car destroyed. 

Even while admitting Martinez had committed no crime.

On August 12, 2022, the Honorable James F. Vano of the Johnson County District Court ordered the car returned.

This action follows an amicus brief filed by the Kansas Justice Institute and legislative action to remedy KHP’s seizure of an innocent man’s dream car.

KJI, like the Sentinel, is owned by Kansas Policy Institute.

The court’s order returning the 1959 Corvette cites HB 2595, which allows for classic cars to be registered in Kansas with a proper bill of sale documentation, and SB 267, an appropriations bill containing language to ensure that Mr. Martinez would get his Corvette back. SB 267 also included up to $20,000 to ensure the value of his vehicle is maintained.

KJI Litigation Director Sam MacRoberts said this is a “major victory.”

Sam MacRoberts

“The government never should have taken Mr. Martinez’s car, to begin with — or spent years trying to destroy it,” MacRoberts said. “The government doesn’t get to acknowledge someone’s innocence but still try to take their property. In the end, though, this is a major victory against government overreach. We’re happy Mr. Martinez is going to be able to take a joy ride soon.”  

KJI’s arguments – that the United States and Kansas Constitutions do not permit the government to acknowledge a person’s innocence and still take their property – ultimately carried the day in the Legislature. The underlying case is State of Kansas, ex rel. Kansas Highway Patrol v. 1959 Chevrolet Corvette and is being argued by private counsel. The District Court requested the amicus brief that Kansas Justice Institute filed in August 2021. 

Civil asset forfeiture at issue in the case

Partly at issue is a Kansas law that allows — like similar laws in many states — the government to seize assets that are “fruits of criminal activity.”

In Martinez’s case, KHP inspectors discovered a VIN in a non-public location beneath the car. They used a mirror to access a secret VIN plate, long ago painted over.

KHP then seized Martinez’s car under a statute that defines as “contraband” any vehicle with a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) that has been “destroyed, removed, altered or defaced.”

According to MacRoberts, governments sometimes use asset forfeiture to take a person’s property without a criminal conviction. And in some cases, like Martinez’s, the government never even charged Martinez with a crime.

The laws were intended as a way to clamp down on organized crime by targeting the assets drug dealers and other criminal organizations purchased with money obtained through illegal activity.

However, as MacRoberts noted in KJI’s amicus brief, “civil forfeiture proceedings often enable the government to seize property even when the owner is personally innocent.”

These laws also make it incredibly difficult for ‘innocent owners’ such as Martinez to recover their property.

As Americans for Prosperity notes: “Owners must prove their property’s innocence in court. Unlike criminal trials, where prosecutors must prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, civil forfeiture proceedings require that the state show the property is connected to criminal activity only by a preponderance of the evidence.”

Note, the owner is not the defendant in the civil trial, but rather the property is considered the defendant.

Moreover, in Martinez’s case, the government wasn’t even asserting that the car was the fruit of any criminal activity — simply that the painted-over VIN plate rendered it “contraband.”

The Americans for Prosperity Foundation did an analysis of forfeiture actions in Kansas between July 1, 2019, and Dec. 31, 2021.  Their analysis found:

  • Kansas law enforcement reported seizing $21.3 million from people in the state.
  • On average, law enforcement reports taking over $13,000 per day in money and property from people in Kansas.
  • KBI annual reports omit up to one-third of the total value of assets forfeited.
  • Most seizures do not involve amounts that would disrupt organized crime operations.
  • Owners of seized property have recouped just 8% of the value of their seized assets.
  • For those few fortunate people who were able to recover their seized property, it took them an average of 419 days to do so.
  • For most people whose property has been seized by Kansas law enforcement, the cost of recovering their property is greater than the value of the property seized.

“The government should not get to destroy an innocent person’s car,” MacRoberts said. “When the government knows someone is innocent, they shouldn’t use their power and resources to take someone’s property.”

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