The case of Richard Martinez, whose classic 1959 Corvette was seized by the Kansas Highway Patrol — which then spent years attempting to destroy the car as “contraband” despite admitting Martinez had committed no crime — is just one of the more obvious examples of issues with civil asset forfeiture in the Sunflower State.
Martinez eventually had his car returned after Kansas Justice Institute and the Legislature intervened, but many others in Kansas — indeed across the country — are not so fortunate.
Kansas law — like that in many other states — allows for “civil asset forfeiture,” which was originally intended as a tool for law enforcement 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 Kansas Justice Institute Litigation Director Sam MacRoberts, who helped Martinez get his car back, noted in KJI’s amicus brief, “civil forfeiture proceedings often enable the government to seize property even when the owner is personally innocent.”
KJI, like the Sentinel, is owned by the Kansas Policy Institute.
Civil asset forfeiture is ‘Policing for Profit’
While it can be a useful tool for law enforcement, the problems with civil asset forfeiture are rife. Sometimes referred to as “policing for profit,” civil asset forfeiture has become big business, generating significant revenue for the state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies across the country.
- In 2018 alone, 42 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Treasury, forfeited over $3 billion. This is the year for which we have data from the largest number of states.
- Looking at a longer time period, 2002 to 2018, 20 states and the federal government forfeited over $63 billion. The remaining states did not provide data for those 17 years.
- Since 2000, states and the federal government forfeited a combined total of at least $68.8 billion. And because not all states provided full data, this figure drastically underestimates forfeiture’s true scope.
- Among the states with 2018 data, Florida, Texas, Illinois, California, and New York took in the most forfeiture revenue. But once state populations are factored in, Florida, Illinois, Tennessee, Rhode Island, and Nebraska used forfeiture most extensively.
Indeed, a similar report by the Americans For Prosperity Foundation focusing on Kansas found that 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.
“Kansas civil asset forfeiture laws present law enforcement with a compelling profit motive to seize people’s money and property,” the report reads. “Those same laws make it easy for law enforcement to take people’s property and overwhelmingly difficult for owners to recover it. Civil asset forfeiture imperils peoples’ rights to property and due process in Kansas.”
In 2018, the legislature passed a law requiring law enforcement in the state to report asset seizure and forfeiture information to the Kansas Asset Seizure and Forfeiture Repository, which is maintained by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. But a report earlier this year by the Kansas Reflector found that ambiguous requirements, reporting errors, and accounting discrepancies obscure the extent of forfeiture activities in Kansas.
AFPF also found that the KBI’s annual reports on civil asset forfeiture grossly under-represent the total amounts of cash and property forfeited by the state. The Bureau’s figures do not include assets Kansas law enforcement seizes and then hands over to federal agencies for federal forfeiture. Through a program known as equitable sharing, federal agencies return a percentage of the proceeds from federal forfeitures to Kansas law enforcement, which amounts to millions of dollars in unreported forfeitures annually.
Additionally, while civil asset forfeiture laws are supposed to target organized crime, more often than not, it is the average person who is usually the victim.
“AFPF’s analysis of the KASFR data reveals that 60% of the seizures have a total value of $5,000 or less,” the report reads. “One incident report is for a seizure of just $70 in cash. The owner contested the seizure, but the state forfeited the cash to law enforcement despite declining to prosecute the owner criminally. Most seizures in Kansas do not involve values that would injure organized crime operations, but that often amount to a significant loss for the average person — and many more are just petty takings.”
AFPF praised the KASFR report for at least bringing some measure of accountability to asset forfeiture in the state but noted that KBI reports omit about a third of actual forfeitures.
Indeed, outside of revenue, there seems to be no compelling reason to continue the practice.
“Civil asset forfeiture endangers peoples’ rights to property and due process in Kansas,” the report reads. “Considered alongside recent studies indicating civil asset forfeiture is not an effective tool for fighting crime, Kansas forfeiture activities — including knocking over an armored vehicle transporting cash on the interstate — call into question the motivation for forfeitures: to promote public safety or generate revenue?”
MacRoberts raised similar issues over Martinez’s car.
“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.”