Lawmakers address asset forfeiture

Two bills would reform the way law enforcement can seize assets.


State News

February 23, 2024 - 3:04 PM

Photo by Daniel Caudill / Kansas News Service /

TOPEKA — The Kansas Highway Patrol took more than $15,000 in cash from Barbara Reese in 1995 during a traffic stop.

It took her 24 years, several claims against the government, and legislative outrage to get some of the money back.

Reese, and others like her, were subjected to the state’s civil asset forfeiture practice, one widely characterized as in dire need of reform. Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement agencies to seize cash and property they suspect was used in a crime. Critics of the practice say loose regulations have led to unjust seizures.

In Kansas, police can take property they believe to be connected to crime before the property owner is charged or convicted — a practice that has led to approximately $25.3 million in cash and property seized by Kansas law enforcement agencies over the past three and a half years.

“For certain agencies, this has devolved into a moral hazard, where it’s gone from being an effective crime-fighting tool to solving the case, to now it’s become a way we can make cash for our organization,” said Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, Thursday during Senate debate.

Agencies will need to meet higher standards to keep taking these assets if lawmakers finalize approval of new legislation. Concerned lawmakers have put forward more transparency measures in the form of House Bill 2606 and Senate Bill 458.

Both bills would remove the crime of drug possession from the list of offenses subject to forfeiture, shorten the window of time for property to be returned to the owner, require a judge to approve a probable cause affidavit before a forfeiture case could proceed, and allow defendants who recovered more than half of their property to recoup attorney fees and litigation costs.

The proposed changes come after several studies of forfeiture costs. The Kansas Legislature in 2018 required the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to report seizures and forfeitures in the state through a public platform.

Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican who introduced HB2606, characterized the bill as one that is “not simple but it is incredibly important” in Thursday’s House chamber discussion of the legislation.

“This is a good, sound piece of legislation that is going to do significant work to effect change here in Kansas,” said Rep. Dan Osman, an Overland Park Democrat. 

House lawmakers voted 119-0 to send HB2606 to the Senate and Senate lawmakers voted 36-2 to send their bill to the House on Thursday.