Editorial: Change the law on seizing assets

Kansas lawmakers were right to overhaul laws regarding the seizure and liquidation of assets by law enforcement.

House bill 2459, approved by the House and Senate, would require law enforcement to provide greater transparency and information regarding seizures and liquidation. The bill is awaiting Gov. Jeff Colyer’s signature to become law.

Under current law, law enforcement agencies can seize cash, vehicles, property and other assets of a criminal suspect if officers believe the assets are proceeds of illegal activity or were used in the commission of a crime. Once property is seized, agencies can petition to have those assets forfeited and turned over to the agency. Generally, law enforcement agencies sell the seized assets for specific law enforcement purposes.

But as a 2016 report by the Legislative Post Audit Division showed, the program’s current structure allows for broad discretion. The report showed some law enforcement agencies were not complying with reporting requirements about their seizure activities or not following restrictions on how the proceeds can be used.

In essence, current law encourages a wild, wild West approach that’s ripe for abuse. There have been a number of high-profile cases in which authorities used the law to seize assets of individuals who were never formally charged or convicted of any crime. And there have been complaints that people whose assets are seized are not adequately notified about forfeiture proceedings so they can have time to challenge the forfeiture.

House Bill 2459 makes the forfeiture process more transparent by tightening reporting requirements. The bill makes the Kansas Bureau of Investigation responsible for maintaining a central record-keeping system to track all seized and forfeited assets, including information about the agency that seized the property, whether or not charges are ever filed in the case and the amount of proceeds received from forfeited assets.

The bill strengthens the requirements for providing notice to people whose assets have been seized, as well as others such as mortgage or lien holders, that a forfeiture proceeding is commencing. It gives property owners or others with a vested interest in the property additional time to file a claim that the property is exempt from forfeiture.

The bill would allow property to be forfeited even if the person is never charged or convicted. But the new law does place a greater burden on authorities to show that the assets were directly tied to criminal activity.

The use of asset seizure and forfeiture laws increased rapidly during the war on drugs. The idea was to reduce trafficking by hitting high-level dealers where it would hurt most: their pocketbooks. It isn’t clear that strategy has been overly successful, but asset seizures have been by funneling millions every year to law enforcement agencies around the country.

Asset seizures and forfeitures should be tightly regulated with strict reporting to ensure laws are being followed and individual rights are protected. House Bill 2459 is a step in the right direction and Colyer should sign it into law.