Opinion

Errors in asset forfeiture reporting by Kansas police obscure facts, undermine transparency

April 20, 2022 3:33 am

Civil asset forfeiture reporting problems undermine the intent of Kansas legislators, writes Clay Wirestone. (Getty Images)

Civil asset forfeiture boggles the mind. How can law enforcement organizations seize property without charging anyone and then just keep the proceeds? Money, vehicles and other potential evidence can just be whisked away.

That sounds like a problem, and it was heartening that the Kansas Legislature took steps to address it back in 2018. The measure was modest, merely giving “Kansas law enforcement agencies with a method to report asset seizure and forfeiture information” through a special website.

Yet an astonishing report in Kansas Reflector over the weekend showed that tracking mechanism has fallen woefully short.

“A review of nearly 2,000 reports filed so far found widespread inconsistencies in the way seizures are reported. More than half of the law enforcement agencies have failed to report some of their seizures as required and have done so with the blessing of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation,” wrote veteran journalist Duane Schrag.

Now, I want to make something clear. Social media chatter about the story over the weekend included inflammatory allegations about our state’s law enforcement. Readers can draw their own conclusions. But that’s not where my mind went.

Yes, we want to make sure funds seized through civil asset forfeiture aren’t misused. The story didn’t focus on that, however. My concern is about disregard shown for a commonsense law passed by the people’s representatives in Topeka.

Think about it this way. Lawmakers saw a clear and pressing problem. They decided to pass a law. They didn’t go as far as banning civil asset forfeiture altogether, which some states have done, but simply asked officials to track the practice. Through comprehensive and transparent data, Kansans could follow trends and hold officials accountable.

What Schrag found, however, was that law enforcement officials across Kansas — both on the local and statewide levels — have made that data difficult to follow.

The problems don’t appear to all originate in the same place. In some cases, issues may have originated with the state database. In other cases, possibly incorrect or incomplete data was supplied. It’s difficult, frankly, not to feel sympathetic to the plight of overstretched officers who are simply trying to do their job.

– Clay Wirestone

The problems don’t appear to all originate in the same place. In some cases, issues may have originated with the state database. In other cases, possibly incorrect or incomplete data was supplied. It’s difficult, frankly, not to feel sympathetic to the plight of overstretched officers who are simply trying to do their jobs.

“The State of Kansas has changed their reporting criteria a couple of times in the last several years and have required different information each time so that not everything adds up until they pick a method and stick with it for a few years,” Capt. Cory Odell of the Junction City Police Department wrote to Schrag.

It might be that the Legislature passed a bad law. It might be that legislators don’t know what they’re talking about and made a poor choice. I’m certainly open to being persuaded on that point, given some of the Legislature’s recent, disastrous decisions.

However, all of us should respect the intent behind a basic transparency measure, like the one involved here. It appears to be a worthwhile law for Kansas, and one that officials across the board should enact promptly and accurately.

What troubles me most is the possibility that some officials don’t want that transparency, or that they don’t respect legislative intent.

“The intention was to have that data available so that the Legislature could look at additional legislation to deal with what most of us perceived to be the overuse of civil asset forfeiture,” Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, told Schrag.

If that’s not happening, what should we think?

Remember, senators and representatives in Topeka represent all of us. They give their constituents a voice. If they actually pass a law representing the best interests of those constituents (not a given, but bear with me), that law should be enforced. Those who don’t do so are thwarting the will of everyday Kansans.

The blockbuster story included hopeful signs. Of 360 law enforcement agencies in Kansas, it appears that only about 70 have reported civil asset seizures in the last three years. Many officials who spoke with Schrag looked over their reporting when questioned and worked to correct the public record. The KBI comprehensively updated the reporting website. All of these moves deserve attention and praise.

As long as this law remains on the books, however, the public deserves an accurate account of asset forfeitures — as a default, not when prompted by a reporter. One day, perhaps, that accurate accounting can lead to abolition of the practice altogether.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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