Four years after Kansas passed a civil asset forfeiture reform bill requiring police to regularly report what they take and from whom, the Kansas House is now considering two bills that would pare back the ability of police departments to take property and cash from Kansans.
Civil asset forfeiture allows police officers to seize property, money, vehicles, and even homes by claiming that they are the proceeds of illegal activity. In many states, these seizures directly fund police, who often are not required to prove a criminal connection or to pursue a case against the property owners. To get their property returned, meanwhile, owners must disprove a criminal connection through an expensive and bureaucratic appeals process.
Kansas House Bill 2648 would require police to pursue prosecution in order to seize property. “If no criminal charges are filed or prosecution is declined,” the bill reads, “the property shall be returned to such property’s rightful owner or disposed of in accordance with this section.” Successful seizures would also have to be turned over to the state general fund. Current law allows Kansas police to keep what they take, which critics of civil asset forfeiture say incentivizes police to make claims about criminality that they cannot prove.
House Bill 2640 would prohibit police from seizing cash in amounts less than $200 and vehicles worth less than $2,000. It also creates a new process for allowing property owners to contest asset forfeiture. It would task public defenders with representing their criminal defense clients in forfeiture proceedings and create new notification requirements for prosecutors, who would be obligated to seek out people with potential ownership interests in seized assets and inform them of their right to contest the forfeiture.
The effort to reform civil asset forfeiture in Kansas has drawn support from advocates of all stripes in the state, including the Kansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the free-market think tank Kansas Policy Institute.
“I think Kansans understand that civil asset forfeiture is problematic,” says Sam MacRoberts, litigation director of the Kansas Justice Institute, a public interest law firm and a subsidiary of the Kansas Policy Institute. “I think Kansans understand that the way the law is set up incentivizes profit-based policing, and it’s my impression that asset forfeiture facilitates overreach and abuse.”
MacRoberts added “that the government’s ability and propensity to seize and forfeit a person’s property without a criminal conviction poses a serious risk to our constitutional rights.”
Micah Kubic, Executive Director of ACLU of Kansas, is also eager to see more reforms to asset forfeiture in the state. “Kansans across the ideological and political spectrum have been outraged by this unjust system,” he told Reason. “To many Kansans, the idea that the government could seize a person’s property—their house, their car, their cash—without ever convicting, or even trying, them of a crime sounds like a dystopian fantasy. They simply cannot fathom that it is the current law and that it happens day in and day out across the state.”