Madison Coker
KU Statehouse Wire Service
A bill introduced in January is sitting in The House Judiciary Committee and requires a choice between individual rights and the fight against drug trafficking, proponents and opponents say.
The Judiciary Committee is an exempt committee, meaning in this final week of session it could still vote the bill through and send it on to the Senate. Other committees would have to send a bill to an all-House vote.
The current session is expected to end soon. Because 2017 is the first year of a two-year bill cycle, if the committee chooses to hold the bill it will be carried over into next session.
HB 2018 removes law enforcement’s ability to confiscate a private person’s possessions because it believes the assets are connected to a crime. The bill would necessitate a criminal conviction in order to seize assets.
According to Lee McGrath’s written testimony on behalf of the Senior Legislative Counsel for the Institute for Justice, law enforcement in Kansas received almost $52 million in forfeiture revenue from 2000 to 2013.
McGrath said the police departments are supposed to use that money to support future investigations but there is no way of tracking how the departments are spending it. McGrath pointed out many police departments in Kansas do not have exact records tracking seized assets.
Officers from cities across Kansas including Lenexa, Chanute and McPherson are worried that this change of law would negatively impact their day-to-day operations.
Lenexa Police Chief Thomas Hongslo is especially concerned with how it will hinder his department’s ability to fight illegal drug trade.
“The criminals that operate these organizations both inside and outside the United States organize the transportation of millions of dollars across this country and Kansas contains highways that make it a major thoroughfare for this money,” Hongslo said.
City Manager of Chanute Jeff Cantrell is worried this bill could create a loophole for drug traffickers to continue their work while awaiting a court proceeding.
For example, Cantrell said, it is important for law enforcement to have the ability to seize a car that it believes is linked to a crime. He said it can stop someone else from using the suspect’s car to keep transporting drugs.
However, Legislative Committee Chair of the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Jessica Glendening disagrees with Hongslo. She said police are seizing many innocent people’s property.
“People are losing money, just because they were carrying around a large some of it,” Glendening said.
Currently, Hongslo said, officers are only allowed to seize money when they can prove through investigation that it is tied to illegal activity. He said the bill would not only negatively impact the process of investigating a case for officers, but it could be a deterrent for the state.
“Kansas may become a major and preferred route of travel for the money couriers when they learn that the state of Kansas does not allow asset seizure without criminal conviction,” Hongslo said.
Cantrell said many of the agencies that oppose this bill are located along active highway corridors that connect cities and metropolitan areas.
“Our ability to forestall some of this activity serves the greater good of the entire state,” Cantrell said.
Supporters for the bill say it will benefit individual citizens and their rights. Former Democratic candidate for the 39th District House of Representatives Angelina Lawson said people do not feel safe at every traffic stop and other encounters with law enforcement.
“We need significant reform of our state’s criminal justice system and the passage of this bill will move Kansas in the right direction,” Lawson said.
Lawson also points out that the current law violates due process rights and poses serious risks to people’s property. She said seizing someone’s property could be damaging to his or her livelihood.
“Citizens are forced to hire a lawyer for their vehicle or property at their expense; there is no lawyer provided for them,” Lawson said. “Many simply cannot afford that and must give up their property even though they are innocent.”
However, Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said negative opinions about the current forfeiture laws come from a misunderstanding. He said that people believe police are confiscating innocent people’s money and that is not the case.
“No one’s money or property is taken without a due process component,” Ramsay said. “Some of the sensationalized characterizations of Kansas forfeiture law is inaccurate and is perpetuated by those who do not understand the policy.”
Ramsay said that every person is legally allow to have a fair trial. When people do not get their assets back, they choose to not go through the trial process.
Director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation Kirk Thompson said civil asset forfeiture is an essential tool for combatting crime. He said the purpose of the forfeiture is to disrupt the criminal activity by taking away criminals’ resources.
Thompson said asset forfeiture is a strategy during an investigation that is meant to “dismantle criminal organizations, disrupt continuing enterprises and take away a major driver of crime, financial gain.”
Although many law enforcement officers believe seizing assets helps their investigations, others are worried about where that money is going. In Kansas, police departments are not required to publicly disclose how the money is used.
Voice for Liberty blogger Bob Weeks said the current system creates incentives to punish someone, before they are convicted.
“The bill would eliminate any financial incentive for law enforcement to seize property,” Weeks said.
Rep. Carmichael (D-Wichita) said if the purpose of seizing assets is to take the money out of crime, maybe the obtained money should be used to benefit the state as a whole.
Carmichael suggested that, “the proceeds should go towards the state general fund.”
If the Judiciary Committee does not send the bill to the Senate, it will be pushed to the next legislative session.
Madison Coker is a University of Kansas junior studying journalism from Kansas City.