We’ve seen more than a few examples of how little justification it takes for law enforcement to decide someone is “suspicious” and act on it—as when the Tonganoxie Police Department handcuffed and held at gunpoint a black man moving into his own home last year, then blocked him from filing a racial profiling complaint.
Under current Kansas law, law enforcement agencies can seize property if it’s “suspected” of being connected to illegal activity, such as drug money - and Highway Patrol in particular has done so. These seizures, known as civil asset forfeiture, are seemingly on a whim, happening without due process - before an individual has even been arrested, charged, or convicted.
And even after acquittal, affected individuals almost never get their property back. This all creates a huge incentive for law enforcement to shake down innocent citizens for profit.
That’s wrong. It’s also unconstitutional. The Fourteenth Amendment provides the right to due process to protect against arbitrary denial of life, liberty, or property by the government outside the sanction of law. The Fourteenth Amendment also includes protections under the Excessive Fines Clause, as throughout history excessive fines have been used to undermine constitutional liberties.
Civil asset forfeiture is an obvious violation of our Fourteenth Amendment protections.
What’s also wrong? The utter lack of transparency. We don’t even know how many innocent Kansans have lost their property to civil asset forfeiture on our state highways and to the subsequent bureaucratic confusion because law enforcement agencies have never been required to track or report these numbers in this state.
There’s bipartisan agreement about the need for reform. Last year, in the 2018 session, the legislature and then-Governor Colyer passed and signed into law a transparency bill requiring law enforcement to report the date, location, and value of asset seizures, as well as whether or not criminal charges were filed in conjunction with the seizure. We might finally know the contents of police departments’ ledgers, as the law requires they show their forfeiture fund balances, deposits, and expenditures.
But simply knowing is not enough. Current Kansas civil asset forfeiture law fails to protect Kansans from broad, unregulated overreach - and what amounts to highway robbery by the state.
Update: Per transparency legislation passed in 2018, the KBI must produce a website that reports on civil asset forfeiture by July 1, 2019. Until now, there has been no publicly released data on just how many Kansans have been victims of policing for profit.