Kansas House advances major reform of civil asset forfeiture law

The House of Representatives chamber of the Kansas Statehouse is pictured July 23, 2014 in Topeka.

? The Kansas House gave first-round approval Wednesday to a bill enacting the first major reforms of the state’s civil asset forfeiture law in more than 20 years.

That law, first enacted in 1994, enables prosecutors and law enforcement agencies to seize assets such as cash, vehicles or other property from criminal suspects if they believe those assets were derived from criminal activity. Furthermore, courts can order that property to be forfeited, in some cases even if the defendant is never convicted of a crime.

The House voted to advance the bill on a unanimous voice vote, despite concerns by some that the reforms don’t go far enough.

Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, who has pushed for reform legislation for the past four years, said many individuals would still have a difficult time challenging the seizure and forfeiture of their assets.

“This puts a heavy weight on citizens because sometimes they don’t have the resources to fight,” she said during debate on the bill.

Finney noted that several states are now reforming their civil asset forfeiture laws, including some that now require a criminal conviction as a prerequisite for ordering the forfeiture of property.

House Bill 2459 doesn’t go that far. But it would impose stricter reporting requirements on all law enforcement agencies, and it would designate the Kansas Bureau of Investigation as the central repository for all data on seized and forfeited assets.

The bill also imposes tighter requirements for notifying defendants about forfeiture proceedings in court, and it extends the time for those defendants to respond to those notices from 30 days to 60 days.

Finally, it puts a greater burden on seizing agencies to prove in court that the assets they are seeking to have forfeited are actually proceeds from criminal activity.

In 2016, Finney spearheaded a request for a Legislative Post Audit investigation of the state’s civil asset forfeiture policies.

Among other things, that investigation revealed that law enforcement agencies were not properly tracking forfeiture proceeds and that some local law enforcement agencies were not complying with a state requirement for detailed reporting of assets that are seized and forfeited and an accounting of how the proceeds of those forfeitures are being spent.

Following that report, the Kansas Judicial Council formed an advisory committee to conduct a deeper study of the state’s laws and policies and to make recommendations for changes. Those recommendations became the framework for the House bill.

Rep. Mary Martha Good, R-El Dorado, also argued that the bill does not go far enough. She said she represents a constituent whose business assets, including several cars, were seized by authorities in 2012, and she still has not been able to retrieve those assets, even though she was found not guilty of any crime.

“I have not decided whether I’m going to vote for this or not because of this problem in El Dorado, Kansas,” she said.

Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that recommended the bill, conceded that it was not perfect. But he urged the House to approve it, arguing that it is still an improvement over current law.

“This bill makes it easier for innocent owners to get their property back,” he said. “This bill makes it harder for the state to take property without showing just cause why it was related to a crime. And most importantly, it increases and puts teeth behind reporting requirements so we can get to the bottom of how much property is being forfeited and spent, by whom and under what conditions.”

If approved on final action Thursday, the bill will go to the Senate.