Katie Bernard
KU Statehouse Wire Service
The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony Jan. 24 on what some referred to as a first step in addressing asset forfeiture in the state.
The issue of civil asset forfeiture was the subject of a 2016 report by the Legislature’s auditors, eight bills introduced during the 2017 legislative session and work last year by the Kansas Judicial Council to draft reform legislation, said Kirk Thompson, director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
Currently state law provides little regulation on asset forfeiture, the process that allows law enforcement to seize property if they believe it to be related to illicit activity. For example, a 2016 legislative audit found that the Kansas Highway Patrol deposited $842,041 into its forfeiture fund in fiscal year 2015. No charges or convictions are required for assets to be seized from an individual.
House Bill 2459 would introduce more regulation by requiring law enforcement agencies to report each seizure as well as the reason for the seizure. It also adjusts the process through which individuals can regain their property to make it easier.
Thompson said the KBI supported a requirement in House Bill 2459 to create a reasonable process for individuals to file a claim to seized property and assets, and language offering guidance on how asset forfeiture proceeds could be spent.
The legislation also would instruct the KBI to establish a central statewide database of information on asset seizures and forfeitures to better assess trends.
“The data proposals of the bill are very important,” Jeff Easter Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said. “Accurate data will not only dispel erroneous or partial information on the forfeiture activity in Kansas, but will also offer information in the future to assure legislative changes are need.”
Those testifying in favor of the bill came from a variety of different organizations, offering multiple reasons for their support of the bill.
“I think it was a real victory for the notion of compromise and trying to take a first step in the right direction with this, increase transparency and set up a good reporting mechanism so we know the full extent of how much this process is being used and the amount of assets that are being forfeited,” committee chair Blaine Finch (R-Ottawa) said.
Even among supporters, however, the bill faced criticism.
Rep. Gail Finney (D-Wichita), who helped draft the bill, expressed concern in her testimony that there were no consequences for agencies that failed to report. Additionally, she said the House bill would extend the amount of time an owner of forfeited property must request an exemption from state law. It’s not enough, she said.
“The bill does not go far enough to help protect the property rights and due process of citizens or reduce the policing for profit incentivization,” Finney said. “If this bill is fully implemented, Kanans will still be subjected to their property being seized and forfeited on the mere suspicion that a crime has taken place without any arrest, charge or conviction of a crime.”
Rep. John Whitmer (R-Cheney) shared Finney’s concern that the proposed bill did not adequately address forfeiture in Kansas. He said he would support an amendment that would prevent asset seizure without conviction of a crime but was unsure of the house bill in its current state.
“I understand that they’ve done a lot of good work and I appreciate that work but I’m not sure I can support (the bill),” Whitmer said.
Former Sen. Greg Smith from Overland Park, who works with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department, said current state law on asset forfeitures was sufficient, and argued existing statute offered law enforcement a powerful tool to thwart criminals.
“Our location on the Kansas-Missouri metro places us in the transportation pipeline for both drug and human trafficking,” Smith said. “Asset forfeiture is an effective tool to deter these types of crimes.”
He said Kansas was among 36 states that had no conviction requirement to initiate asset seizures.
Wichita resident John Todd told House members he couldn’t disagree more with Smith.
“Asset forfeiture and seizure laws in Kansas violate the basic American principles of private property and liberty in our country and should be repealed,” he said.
Vignesh Ganapathy with the ACLU of Kansas said that the Kansas Legislature should do more to follow the example of other states in further regulating asset forfeiture but that the house bill is a “first step.”
“We wouldn’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good,” Ganapathy said.
Katie Bernard is a University of Kansas junior majoring in journalism from Overland Park.