“If there's reason to suspect that money was intended to be used in a drug deal, an officer could confiscate that money permanently if certain conditions are met.”
A Kansas program that allows law enforcement officers to take away property involved in a crime could get an overhaul in the near future.
The process is called asset forfeiture, and is intended to confiscate property that has been used to commit a crime, or was obtained as the result of a crime. For example, cash obtained through the sale of illegal drugs can be seized by law enforcement and used to fund government agencies.
However, asset forfeiture came under fire after a Las Vegas man accused the Kansas Highway Patrol of wrongfully seizing $32,000 in cash. The state legislature is also looking at enacting tougher restrictions on when assets can be seized.
Asset forfeiture is rare in McPherson County. McPherson County Attorney Torrance Parkins expects to file an average of 10 forfeiture cases each year, and county law enforcement agencies say these instances usually stem from drug-related cases.
"We might arrest someone on possession of marijuana, and they have $800 in cash on them," said McPherson Police Capt. Kevin McKean. “If there's reason to suspect that money was intended to be used in a drug deal, an officer could confiscate that money permanently if certain conditions are met.”
Once property is taken away, law enforcement agencies can use it for a few different purposes. In McPherson County, seized assets have been used to maintain crime scenes and purchase an ambulance.
"These aren't regular, planned expenses," said McPherson County Sheriff's Capt. Doug Anderson. "It's used to bolster emergency responders in the county."
Asset forfeiture isn't a license for officers to take away private property at will. Before the asset forfeiture process can take place, officers must obtain a court warrant to seize the property, or have sufficient reason to believe that the property was or would be used to commit a crime. In addition, property such as land or buildings can't be seized unless they were involved in a felony crime.
McKean said if there's enough evidence to file formal charges, there's usually enough evidence to make an asset forfeiture case. However, Kansas law does not currently require an individual to be charged with or convicted of a crime before property is taken away.
This is what happened in the case of Salvador Franco from Las Vegas. Franco claims he intended to purchase a vehicle in the St. Louis area with $32,000 in cash. The deal fell through, and while traveling home, Franco was stopped by a Kansas Highway Patrol trooper with questions about a missing front license plate. A police dog detected a drug odor, and though no drugs were found in the vehicle, Franco's money was seized under the suspicion that it was involved in a drug deal. Franco hasn't been charged in this case.
Franco's case is ongoing, and legislators have introduced a bill in the Kansas House of Representatives to require charges be filed before asset forfeiture can take place. Parkins said McPherson County should have no problem meeting that requirement if the bill is passed.
"In each case that I have received a request for forfeiture, there is also a criminal case being prosecuted," he said.