Kansas City Star. August 31, 2023.
Editorial: Kansas police abuse property seizure laws. Both right and left should be alarmed
Americans accused of crimes are officially innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Everybody knows that.
Their stuff? Not so much.
A report released last week by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a conservative group, found that Kansas law enforcement agencies seized $25.3 million in money and property from people suspected of criminal activity — mostly drug crimes, according to state reporting, mostly as the result of traffic stops — between 2019 and 2022. That’s an average of $17,000 a day, much of which ends up paying for police vehicles, officer overtime and other law enforcement expenses. (The numbers differ somewhat from the state’s annual reports, because it includes money local and state agencies turned over to federal law enforcement.)
For many Kansans, that might not sound like much of an issue. After all, we don’t want criminals wandering our roads with illegally gotten gains, do we? And we do want police and other law enforcement agencies to have the tools they need to disrupt criminal activity.
But there is a problem: Very often, local and state law enforcement agencies keep what they’ve seized even if the suspect is found not guilty of a crime. (The state reports that roughly 10% of cases in 2022 ended without criminal charges, or the charges being dismissed.) The folks who do try to get their cash and other property back often give up rather than go through the expensive and arduous process that can take more than a year.
Essentially, stuff connected to crime suspects is guilty till proven innocent — regardless of what the owner actually did or didn’t do.
“Most Kansans are completely unaware of this legal practice,” said Jonathan Lueth, deputy director of Americans for Prosperity’s Kansas chapter, “but when they see the data and have the law explained to them universally people are stunned.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. During the 2023 session of the Kansas Legislature, AFP and other groups across the political spectrum — left and right — pushed for legislation that would require a person to be criminally convicted before their cash and property is officially considered forfeit to the agency that seized it.
“There’s not a ton of guardrails in place now,” said Mike Fonkert, director of Kansas Appleseed, a progressive-leaning group that also backed the bill. “When you’re talking about seizing somebody’s property, we should have a robust set of protections for how and when that happens.”
That seems more than reasonable. Government should have to prove your guilt before it takes your property, right?
Not everybody agrees. The bill was opposed by the Kansas Highway Patrol, Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Kansas Association of Police Chiefs, Kansas Sheriffs Association, Kansas Police Officers Association and the League of Kansas Municipalities, among other groups.
“All of our communities across Kansas are dealing with illegal drug problems and too many criminals make a lot of money dealing illegal drugs to our citizens,” testified Cherokee County Sheriff David Groves, then president of the Kansas Sheriffs Association. “One way to slow down their criminal behavior is to try to start the process of forfeiture on their ill-gotten means.”
Maybe. But there are other reasons for concern. According to Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s official 2022 report, nearly 20% of seized assets in the state were taken from Black suspects; another 17% came from people of Hispanic origin. Those groups make up just 6% and 13% of the state population respectively.
What’s more, we know the agencies doing the seizing aren’t always scrupulous about civil liberties: Just last month, a judge found the Kansas Highway Patrol violated drivers’ rights with the “Kansas two step” maneuver designed to prolong car stops of the kind that result in the seizure of evidence.
We are not calling for the end of civil asset forfeiture. And we do believe that Kansas law enforcement agencies should have the tools they need to disrupt the illegal drug trade and other criminal activity.
But we also believe firmly in the fundamental American proposition of “innocent until proven guilty.” Right now, Kansas still has a ways to go.