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Kansas police seize millions in assets annually. Lawmakers move closer to major reforms

Katie Bernard, The Kansas City Star on

Published in News & Features

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas police who pull over a vehicle and find drug paraphernalia can potentially take the driver’s cash under state law – even if the money is for paying rent, a state lawmaker told his colleagues on Thursday.

“It’s not necessarily the intent of this and nor do I think, to be clear, that the vast majority of law enforcement agencies do that,” Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican, said during a gathering of House Republicans on Thursday. “But the data does show that it does happen.”

The Kansas Legislature advanced proposals on Thursday that would represent the most sweeping overhaul of the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws in years. The House and Senate passed separate bills on civil asset forfeiture, a controversial practice that allows law enforcement to seize property allegedly linked to criminal activity even if someone hasn’t been charged or convicted.

The House approved it’s bill unanimously while the Senate’s passed 38-2.

In the past four years in Kansas, law enforcement seized $23.1 million in cash and other property. Of 1,884 seizures in that time more than 70% resulted in uncontested forfeitures, suggesting that, facing an expensive legal process, few even attempt to regain their property.

Critics of forfeiture have said police agencies have become too financially dependent on funds they earn from asset forfeiture. Speaking on the Senate floor, Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat, said she had constituents who for years have been unable to regain seized property.

 

Sen. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, reminded lawmakers of a case several years ago when lawmakers attempted to pay a woman back for a seizure using the state budget. The funding was vetoed, Claeys said, but the woman was eventually paid back.

“Our civil asset policy is broken. It can too easily be abused,” he said.

The overhaul legislation aims to change this. The result of a Kansas Judicial Council study and compromise between law enforcement and civil rights groups, both bills advanced Thursday make a series of changes to the process for forfeitures and challenges to them.

Civil asset forfeiture has been a major topic in the Legislature for years but garnered additional attention this year as different groups neared compromise.

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