Editorial: Forfeit this bill

Legislation that would eliminate reporting requirements in forfeiture cases is a terrible move.

Kansas’ 2017 legislative session is getting underway with a lousy bill.

The first bill introduced in the session calls for repealing a law that requires law enforcement agencies to file annual reports about what they seize from suspects. The bill was developed in the wake of a Performance Audit Report last July on Kansas’ Civil Asset Forfeiture Program.

Under the forfeiture program, state and local law enforcement agencies can seize cash and assets from individuals suspected of drug trafficking, human trafficking, gambling, forgery, racketeering and several other crimes. Probable cause is all that’s needed for the agency to seize assets. Law enforcement can then file a civil claim to keep the proceeds; no criminal conviction is required. If law enforcement prevails in the civil case, the assets are considered to be forfeited and law enforcement agencies can use the proceeds on any activities other than normal operating expenses.

The audit found the program is flawed. Among the findings:

• By allowing law enforcement agencies to keep seized assets, current law risks agency dependency on seizure funding and promotes potential conflicts of interest for law enforcement.

• In four of the six states the audit reviewed, proceeds from seized assets go to school districts, legislative funds and other program not controlled by the agency that seizes the assets. Only Kansas and Iowa allow the law enforcement agencies to keep what they seize and control how the funds are spent.

• Law enforcement agencies lack important financial controls for tracking forfeiture proceeds.

• Of the agencies reviewed in the audit, state law enforcement agencies complied with state reporting requirements on forfeitures and how the proceeds were spent, but local law enforcement agencies did not.

Under current law, all law enforcement agencies are required to submit annual reports to their governing bodies detailing the type and approximate value of forfeited assets they received and how those proceeds were used.

It’s mystifying that anyone could read the 84-page audit and decide that what’s needed is less scrutiny of the forfeiture program. Yet, that’s exactly what the Legislative Post Audit Committee did last fall. Told that local law enforcement agencies weren’t properly filing annual reports, the Legislative Post Audit Committee recommended that the reporting requirement be eliminated for local law enforcement. Voila, the first bill of 2017 was born.

Clearly the Kansas Civil Asset Forfeiture Program should be scrutinized for improvement. As the audit points out, current law is rife with opportunities for abuse. But absolving local law enforcement of having to report on assets it has seized and how the proceeds were spent would only make the situation worse.

The first bill of 2017 doesn’t deserve to see the light of day.