Civil liberties advocates, law enforcement clash over asset forfeiture bill

Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, questions Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on a bill Finney is sponsoring to put tighter limits on the state's civil asset forfeiture law.

? Civil liberties advocates and Kansas law enforcement officials found themselves on opposite sides Tuesday in debate over a bill that would rein in the state’s authority to order the forfeiture of property of criminal suspects.

The House Judiciary held hearings Tuesday on the bill sponsored by Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, who has attempted to push the same legislation through in each of the last two legislative sessions. It would require a criminal conviction before a state court could order the forfeiture of a suspect’s money or property.

“Kansas civil asset forfeiture laws threaten the constitutional rights and violate the basic rights of property and due process of our citizens,” Finney told the committee. “Kansans should be innocent until proven guilty. But with our current civil asset forfeiture act, their property is guilty until they prove it innocent.”

Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, questions Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on a bill Finney is sponsoring to put tighter limits on the state's civil asset forfeiture law.

Under current state law, police can seize money, vehicles or other property they believe has been used in the commission of certain crimes, and a court can order that it be permanently forfeited even if there is never any prosecution or conviction related to that crime.

Similar provisions exist in federal law for money and property used in the commission of federal crimes.

Proceeds of those assets are typically distributed back to the law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation.

Finney, however, argued that law enforcement agencies have, in some cases, abused their discretion by seizing cash, vehicles and other property from people who were not guilty of any crime.

One such case, Finney said, involved a Topeka woman, Barbara Reese, whom Finney described as an “entrepreneur” who buys and sells cars. In 1995, she was pulled over by the Kansas Highway Patrol which suspected her vehicle and the the $17,660 in cash she was carrying were being used in an illegal drug deal, although she was never charged with a crime.

Reese, however, argued that she was on her way to a car auction and the money was to be used to purchase a car.

Last year, 21 years after the seizure, the Joint Committee on Special Claims Against the State recommended paying the money back to her out of the Highway Patrol’s budget. A bill authorizing that payment passed the House, but Reese’s award was stricken out in a Senate committee.

“This is one of the situations I’m talking about, people who have not been convicted of a crime or charged with a crime, and they’re unable to get their property back,” Finney said.

Supporters of this year’s bill include an unusual coalition of liberal and conservative groups, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, to faith groups like Kansas Interfaith Action, and the conservative think tank Kansas Policy Institute.

“We’re grounded in the principles of limited government and personal freedom, and it’s for those reasons that we concur with everything that’s been said by previous conferees,” KPI president Dave Trabert said.

Rabbi Moti Rieber of Kansas Interfaith Action said the issue raises even more basic ethical concerns.

“I’m not a lawyer, I’m just a simple country rabbi, and it strikes me as very strange that this is even constitutional,” Rieber said. “If you go up to somebody on the street and say you’re allowed to take somebody’s property just based on suspicion, it seems very strange, and not in keeping with American justice and values.”

But prosecutors and law enforcement officials argued against the bill on the grounds that it would allow criminals to keep the profits of illicit activities while imposing additional costs on law enforcement.

Kim Parker of the Kansas County and District Attorneys Association said individual rights are protected under the law because law enforcement officers must show probable cause of a crime before seizing property, and it can only be forfeited in a judicial proceeding in which each side has the opportunity to make its case.

“You have been told here that there is no due process and that is not true. There is civil due process,” Parker said. “What happens in these cases, before anything can finally be forfeited under law, it’s reviewed in a court of law.”

One thing both sides agreed on is the fact that the overwhelming majority of asset forfeitures go unchallenged. But they disagreed as to why that’s the case.

Micah Kubic of the ACLU of Kansas said it’s because most people involved in such cases either can’t afford an attorney to take the case, or the amount of money involved is not large enough to justify the legal expenses.

Parker, however, said it’s because the people involved in criminal activity don’t want to show up in court where they would have to answer questions under oath.

“They don’t claim the money, not surprisingly, because they do not want to be convicted of a crime,” she said. “They do not want to touch illegally obtained money and claim that it is theirs.”

Members of the Judiciary Committee indicated that the bill may need some technical amendments before the panel votes on whether to send it to the full House.

Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, for example, asked Finney what should happen to money or illegal drugs found in an abandoned vehicle that nobody steps forward to claim.

Finney said that in that circumstance, she would not object to the state seizing the property.