‘This is what it is going to cost you’: Chanute police seize vehicles with remarkable frequency

In 2021, the Chanute Police Department accounted for 41 of 48 vehicle seizures statewide resolved with a settlement fee

By: - April 2, 2023 3:30 am
a gavel and handcuffs on cash

In Chanute, this scenario plays out in with remarkable frequency: A traffic stop for a minor infraction, discovery of trace amounts of marijuana or methamphetamine, an arrest, seizure of the vehicle, and then a fee that must be paid to recover it. (Getty Images)

CHANUTE — Mary Leonard wasn’t expecting to be pulled over by a Chanute Police Department officer in the early morning hours of Dec. 21, 2021.

“It was my father’s car. My headlights weren’t turned on,” she said. “It was only the second time I had ever driven that car, and I thought they were automatic since it was a newer car.”

That set off a chain reaction. Because of a prior drunk driving arrest, she was not allowed to drive a vehicle without an ignition interlock. Now she was under arrest for doing just that.

“I told them that this is my purse, and I have a vape pen in here, and I got arrested for marijuana,” she said.

Soon everybody was out of the car and getting searched.

“And the people who were with me had other drugs on them,” she said.

Then the police told her they were seizing the car.

“They held it for forfeiture,” she said.

Her father tried to get the car back the next day but couldn’t.

“He tried multiple times,” she said.

A week later the car was released.

“They had torn through the whole car,” she said. “The console in it was torn up. The trunk was torn up. There was nothing in that car.”

To recover the car, her father had to pay $500.

This is a scenario that plays out in Chanute with remarkable frequency. The basics have a familiar contour — a traffic stop for a minor infraction, discovery of trace amounts of marijuana or methamphetamine, an arrest, seizure of the vehicle, and then a fee that must be paid to recover it.

The legal authority for seizing the car is a process known as civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement agencies to seize any assets they suspect were involved in the committing of a crime — in these cases, possession of illegal drugs.

In Kansas, such seizures must be reported to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and information from these incident reports is available on a public website.

In 2021, the Chanute Police Department reported 46 such seizures, of which 41 were resolved with a settlement agreement. Statewide, there were only seven other seizures in 2021 resolved by settlement.

Civil forfeiture seizures are relatively rare in Kansas. Nearly 300 law enforcement agencies — 80% of those in the state — reported none in 2021.

When asked about the number of seizures by the Chanute Police Department, Neosho County Attorney Linus Thuston was blunt.

“What the police department will fairly regularly do is negotiate with the property owner,” Thuston said. “If you want the property back, this is what it is going to cost you to get the property back.”

However, state laws addressing civil forfeitures say that settlement agreements must be in writing and reviewed by the county attorney, who is to store them for at least five years.

That is not how settlements are handled in Neosho County.

“I have done forfeitures since 1995, and the only time that a settlement agreement has been in my office is if I’m the one that reached it,” Thuston said. “The vast majority of settlement agreements that have been reached (are) negotiated between an attorney for the defendant and the police department. I am not aware of any county attorney’s office that has civil forfeiture (settlements) filed with their office unless they are the ones filing it.”

In response to a Kansas Open Records Act request for copies of settlement agreements, Thuston said he does not have any.

The Chanute Police Department’s response to the same request was to produce copies of receipts written upon the release of vehicles that had been seized. Police Chief Chris Pefley did not respond to an email asking if settlement documents — other than receipts — actually exist.

In an earlier email, Pefley explained the amounts people must pay to get their cars back.

“As chief of police for the city of Chanute, my policy has been to charge a consistent $700 for administrative and storage fees in lieu of proceeding through a civil asset forfeiture action to return vehicles to their owners,” he wrote.

The amounts paid vary more than that. Of the 41 seizures resolved with settlements, just one had a fee of $700. One owner paid $800 after six days. In two instances, people paid $500 to get their cars back on the same day they were seized. On the other hand, one person paid $300 after their car was held for two months.

Pefley did not respond to an email asking how the amount is calculated and where the vehicles are stored.

Under the Kansas forfeiture law, reports of seizures are to identify the criminal case, if there is one, filed in connection with the seizure. Not one of the reports detailing seizures in 2021 by the Chanute Police Department cites a criminal case number. However, a court case search using names of people who redeemed a seized vehicle shows that numerous criminal cases were filed.

A criminal case was filed against Leonard the same day she was arrested. In another case, the county attorney’s office filed a complaint alleging felony possession of methamphetamine and paraphernalia about an hour and half before the individual’s car was seized. The owner paid $400 to redeem it nearly two weeks later.

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Duane Schrag
Duane Schrag

Duane Schrag worked at Kansas newspapers for nearly 30 years. He was a staff reporter at the Washington County News, Hutchinson News and Salina Journal, and editor/publisher of the Chanute Tribune. He lives in Abilene.