By John Celock
A routine bill to settle claims against the state turned into a debate over civil asset forfeiture among Kansas lawmakers Friday.
State lawmakers saw the debate flip after Rep. John Alcala (D-Topeka) offered an successful amendment to settle a slightly over $17,000 claim from a Topeka resident who had the money seized in 1995 by the Kansas Highway Patrol. Alcala’s amendment provoked a lengthy debate over the merits of civil asset forfeiture, discussion over pending bills on the subject and a debate over proper procedure to get a claim from the state.
“Civil asset forfeiture in Kansas you can be pulled over by law enforcement, your car be seized, your cash be seized, your property can be seized without you being arrested or being convicted of a crime,” Rep. Gail Finney (D-Wichita), the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee, said.
Alcala’s amendment concerned Barbara Reese of Topeka, who was pulled over in 1995 by the Kansas Highway Patrol while on her way to Kansas City to participate in a car auction. Alcala said that the Highway Patrol had suspected her of gaining money through illegal drug sales, but he said she made money through a car business in Topeka. He said the trip to Kansas City that day – where she was carrying the cash – was to purchase used cars to rehab and sell. During the stop, the Highway Patrol seized her funds but did not arrest her. The funds were later sent to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which requested them.
Alcala said that Reese’s 1995 experience set off a two-decade odyssey that culminated with his amendment on the state House floor. He said that she hired a lawyer who helped her win a judgment in Wyandotte County district court ordering the state to repay her the money, plus interest. The same judge would later say that because the money had been turned over to the federal government he could not compel the DEA to reimburse her, saying she had to go to federal court. Alcala said that Reese, who is now in her 70s and has a sixth grade education, did not pursue the matter due to the costs of fighting in federal court.
Alcala said Reese sought to have the judgment paid through the state claims process in the Legislature. Under the process, claims against the state are appealed to the Legislature, where the Joint Committee on Special Claims Against the State assumes a quasi-judicial function in deciding which claims to fund. The claims approved by the committee are then placed in a bill that goes through the legislative process in almost routine format.
Claims Committee Chairman James Todd (R-Overland Park) said that Reese had applied for the claim but did not attend a hearing in front of his committee. He said that the committee briefly discussed Reese’s application but did not include her claim because she did not attend. Alcala said that Reese did not know the details of the hearing and how to attend.
The discussion in the House focused on the issues relating to civil asset forfeiture and the issues in the Reese case. Finney, a leading opponent of civil asset forfeiture, said the details of the Reese case showed the need for change to be adopted by lawmakers. Finney noted she knows of cases in Wichita that are similar to Reese where the funds were seized without a conviction or arrest.
Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee Chairman John Rubin (R-Shawnee) said that with several civil asset forfeiture bills pending before lawmakers this year, the Reese case showed the need to start moving ahead with reform. Rubin said that one of the main concerns with the current issue is how the process can be misused and turned into a money making operation for law enforcement.
“It is time to fix the problem and clamp down on it,” Rep. John Bradford (R-Leavenworth) said.
Todd and Rep. Craig McPherson (R-Overland Park), a claims committee member, both argued that lawmakers should not focus on the civil asset forfeiture issues but on the fact that Reese did not attend the committee hearing. They said that the committee did not have a chance to hear from Reese and ask questions about the case and the two decades that have passed since the issue first occurred.
“The precedent we’d set by putting this in at this time,” McPherson said. “An individual who sat on what may or may not be a valid claim for 20 years and then not appearing at committee hearing.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Ballard (D-Lawrence) reminded her colleagues that Reese is not a political activist and might not have known how to access details of the committee hearings on the state website.
“She did not have the means. She did not have the education. She did not have the savvy on what we do as a Legislature,” Ballard said. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Other lawmakers also questioned McPherson and Todd’s insistence on procedure, with Rep. Sydney Carlin (D-Manhattan) noted that when she served in the Claims Committee, the committee had awarded claims where people did not attend the hearing.
The House voted on voice vote to include Reese’s money in the bill.
Rep. Mike Kiegrel (R-Olathe) was blunt to his fellow lawmakers saying that the money in question was miniscule in terms of the overall state budget. He noted that Reese could have sought far more than the $17,000 from the state.
“This is a case that angers me. What is wrong with us? There has been a judgment against the lady. She is ill educated and didn’t know how to follow up. She should have sued the highway patrol for millions,” Kiegrel said. “This is not a large amount of money, $17,000. We spend more than that every minute. Give the woman her money and get it over with.”