Topeka The first bill to be introduced in the 2017 session of the Kansas Legislature calls for repealing a law that requires local law enforcement agencies to file annual reports about the money and other assets they seize from criminal suspects and what they do with those assets.
The bill was pre-filed in both the House and Senate by the Legislative Committee on Post Audit, which held hearings and received a report over the summer that was highly critical of the state's civil asset forfeiture program.
But it also comes at a time when the state is coming under criticism for that program from people who say it allows law enforcement officials to seize money and property from people they suspect of committing crimes, even though many of the suspects are never charged or convicted of any crime.
"I think it's a terrible idea," said David Smith, an attorney in Alexandria, Va., who practices in the area of civil asset forfeiture law.
Smith represents Salvador Franco Jr., a Las Vegas man who has alleged that the Kansas Highway Patrol seized $32,000 in cash from him during a traffic stop on Interstate 70 in March 2016, even though he has never been charged with a crime.
Franco's case was first reported earlier this week by the Topeka Capital-Journal and was picked up by The Associated Press for publication in other news outlets, including the Journal-World.
Federal prosecutors in Kansas are asking a federal court to declare Franco's money forfeited, in which case it would be divided between the federal government and the Kansas Highway Patrol. But Smith is asking that the money be returned to his client.
The bill grew out of a Post Audit report that was issued in July, as well as an earlier audit in 2000, both of which found, among other things, that virtually no local law enforcement agencies were complying with reporting requirements.
The Lawrence Police Department is one local agency that has filed annual reports, although the most recent one offers little detail about how the money was used.
The Lawrence department provided a copy of its most recent report, dated Feb. 23, 2016, showing the department had received $20,771 from one case over the prior year and that "All proceeds were used for educational purposes."
The Douglas County Sheriff's Office did not immediately respond to questions about its reporting practices.
Under current law, local law enforcement agencies are required to submit annual reports to their governing bodies detailing the type and approximate value of forfeited assets it received and how those proceeds were spent.
The committee looked again at the issue on Sept. 21, when it considered legislation to recommend in the 2017 session. According to the minutes of that meeting, the committee was asked to look at two options: strengthening the reporting requirement or doing away with it altogether.
Those minutes reflect that Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, offered a motion to recommend a bill repealing the requirement and that her motion carried.
During an interview Wednesday, however, Kelly said the recent scrutiny and criticism of civil asset forfeitures may prompt lawmakers to take a different approach.
"I think that story may make people rethink this," Kelly said. That had not happened when we met. I don’t think (the issue) was as clear as the article made it, where the problems are and how we might be stomping on people’s rights. Senate Bill 1 might give us that opportunity."
Smith said that, nationwide, federal prosecutions of civil asset forfeiture cases have declined sharply in recent years, especially during the Obama administration, and that public criticism of those programs has prompted many states to reform their own state laws. But he said Kansas has not been among those states.
"Forfeiture abuse is obviously rampant in Kansas, more so than in almost any state right now because most states have cleaned up their acts," he said.