Attorney blasts Kansas asset forfeiture program as ‘highway robbery’

This file photo from 2008 shows a Kansas Highway Patrol trooper approaching a vehicle after a traffic stop on Kansas Highway 10.

? An attorney for a Las Vegas man who had $32,000 seized from him at a central Kansas rest stop alleges that the state’s Highway Patrol is getting away with “highway robbery” through its asset forfeiture program.

Salvador Franco said he intended to use the cash to buy a truck while visiting family in the St. Louis area but that the sale didn’t go through, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported. He was returning to Las Vegas in March when a trooper approached him at the Ellsworth County truck stop and questioned him about his lack of a front license plate, which most Nevada vehicles are required to have. After a police dog alerted to a drug odor, the vehicle was searched. Only the cash, not drugs, were found, and Franco hasn’t been charged.

But in Kansas, law enforcement can seize a person’s property or money if it’s suspected of having a connection to criminal activity. Under the law, an individual doesn’t have to be charged or convicted of a crime.

Court documents allege Franco’s money is tied to controlled substances. An affidavit said a review of Franco’s girlfriend’s phone showed photographs of marijuana and currency.

Kansas Highway Patrol Lt. Adam Winters said the incident involving Franco is an “active investigation” and deferred comment to the U.S. attorney’s office. Jim Cross, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney for Kansas, said because the matter is pending, comments would be reserved “for the courtroom.”

A legislative audit released in July identified problems with state and local law enforcement’s handling of seizures. In response to the audit’s recommendations, the agency came up with an action plan that has been implemented, Winters said.

Franco’s lawyer, David Smith, of Alexandria, Virginia, said fighting seizure cases can be difficult and that legal fees can surpass the amount of money taken. Out-of-state motorists also are less likely to put up a fight, in part because of the logistic challenges of appearing at court dates. Since taking Franco’s case, Smith said two more people have come forward with similar stories.

Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, who requested the Kansas audit, believes forfeiture laws need reform. Finney unsuccessfully sought last session to require criminal conviction before forfeiture takes place and plans to introduce nearly identical legislation this session.

But Ed Klumpp, who serves as the legislative liaison for the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police as well as other law enforcement groups, said, “Civil forfeiture is an effective crime-fighting tool.”