Testimony in Support of HB 2018, limiting civil asset forfeiture
[Currently law allows law enforcement to take property they suspect of being connected with a crime, but no conviction or even arrest is required. That is, a highway patrol officer could stop you, claim to believe your car or other personal possessions are connected with a crime (“hm, I smell pot smoke”) and take them, without even giving you a ticket. This is rife for abuse and it has been abused; it also (unsurprisingly) has a very large racial disparity. This bill require conviction before permanent forfeiture of property.]
In front of the House Judiciary Committee, January 24, 2017
As you have heard from the previous conferees, Kansas' current civil asset forfeiture legislation allows police to take property from people they suspect of criminal activity, without having to convict or even arrest them. The person involved then has to prove their innocence in order to get their property back, which can take a lot of money and a lot of time.
Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, I'm not a lawyer, so I don't have a good sense of the reason why this is even legal, but I like to think I have a strong moral sense, and this strikes me as really unfair. But the report from the Institute for Justice, which you have seen, shows Kansas as being one of the worst states in the country for this, and you should fix that.
I want to put this into a faith context. A working or poor person may only have have their car, or the cash they have on them, in all the world. The commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” seems to apply in this case. There is also the verse from Deuteronomy, “If your neighbor is poor, do not go to sleep with their pledge in your possession.” That means that the property should be returned, because that might be all they have. A related verse in Job says, “You demanded security from your relatives for no reason; you stripped people of their clothing, leaving them naked.” The principle underlying these texts is that we shouldn't take away the meager possessions of those who don't have much. Taking people's property on suspicion or whim, and then making them put up bond money or otherwise fight to get their possessions back, strikes me as directly contradictory to these directives.
I am particularly concerned about the impact of this on people of color, who are disproportionately affected by civil asset forfeiture, as they are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system in general. Nationally, about 65% of civil asset forfeitures involve people of color. In the Department of Justice's report on such activities in Ferguson, Missouri, it became clear that the police department was specifically targeting African Americans in order to raise funds for the municipality. Due to the lack of transparency in Kansas' civil asset forfeiture laws, we have no idea whether this kind of thing is happening here or not. But lack of transparency invites abuse of power, and under the principles of personal freedom and restricted government that are so dear to our society, our presumption should be on the side of the individual.
For reasons of fairness and equity, particularly to working and poor people and people of color, Kansas Interfaith Action calls for reform of Kansas' civil asset forfeiture laws to make forfeiture dependent on conviction rather than whim. Therefore we support SB 2018, and urge this committee to pass it on to the full House.