Police can take money, cars and other property from Kansans through a process called civil asset forfeiture. Police say it’s a tool that stops criminals. But opponents say law enforcement takes too much.
When Jeremy Sellhorn bought a 1986 Chevrolet El Camino, it marked a turning point in his life.
He had been couch surfing, low on cash and having relationship troubles. He turned his life around and bought the car, a symbol of positive changes.
“This is like the moment I’ve started to come back from the depths,” he said.
It was also going to be a gift for his son. But one day in November 2020 Sellhorn got arrested for driving without a license and possession of meth in McPherson County. He hasn’t seen his car since.
“I want my car back … I just don’t understand how to go about it,” he said.
Kansas police took possession of $25.3 million worth of property or cash in a three-and-a-half-year period through a process called civil asset forfeiture. During that time, police took an average of $17,000 a day.
Asset forfeiture is supposed to take cars used to sell drugs or confiscate cash used to buy drugs. But between July 2019 and Dec. 2022, 79% of people who lost their property were innocent or not convicted of a crime, an analysis by Americans for Prosperity Foundation found. That’s a conservative group that advocates for small government. Only 10% of the seized property has been returned.
In one case, the Dickinson County Sheriff helped seize $165,000 from an armored truck. That money came from legally sold marijuana in Missouri that was being driven through Kansas to Colorado.
This process is called civil asset forfeiture, and police say it’s a tool to stop criminal organizations from breaking the law in the future.
“It’s disruptive to them at the least and it doesn’t allow them to profit off of it,” said Ed Klumpp, a legislative liaison for multiple law enforcement groups.
Advocates for criminal justice reform say police are overstepping those boundaries and using forfeiture to take property too often or for no reason.
Sellhorn lost his license because he couldn’t pay off a ticket. He said he got his driving privileges back but then got pulled over again.
Court documents say police approached Sellhorn in November 2020 because they saw him driving and officers were told by dispatch that he didn’t have a valid license.
He was charged with driving while suspended, but then police found meth in his car — something Sellhorn disputes. He said he pleaded guilty to a drug possession charge to avoid possible prison time.
Sellhorn says this stop should have never happened because documents from the department of motor vehicles said he was allowed to drive around five months before he was arrested. Sellhorn tried to tell police, but he said they didn’t listen.
“He kept trying to show me his phone, and I’m like, I don’t want to see your phone right now,” one of the deputies who arrested Sellhorn said on body camera footage from the arrest.
Sellhorn lost his car and almost three years later he doesn’t know where it is.
“Sometimes you’ll hear a hot rod going down the street, and he’ll be like ‘that sounds like my car,’” said Erin Hoffman, who has been with Sellhorn for two decades.
Hoffman is trying to help get the 1986 El Camino back.
They’ve worked with lawyers, made phone calls and court motions, but three years later they have no idea what happens next in the process.
The McPherson Sheriff’s Office said they do have the car, but the case requires court action before it can be returned.
Sellhorn and Hoffman said this has become overly punitive because he didn’t do anything serious enough to end up in prison and his time on probation is about to come to an end, yet keeping his car means he’s still being punished.
“It’s insane that they can do this,” Hoffman said.
Sharon Brett, litigation director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said people often struggle with the court process. Courts are confusing and police can take property without having to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a crime happened.
It’s up to everyday Kansans to get their property back by proving that the police have no reason to keep it.
“People have to fight to get it back,” she said. “Those fights are often stacked against them, which means a lot of property gets taken away.”
Unlike criminal cases, people who can’t afford an attorney do not get one appointed for them in forfeiture cases. If someone needs legal help, they’ll potentially spend thousands of dollars on their own to get it.
A May 2022 study from the Americans for Property Foundation found that half of the civil asset forfeiture cases involve money or property valued at less than $3,100. That means legal fees involved in that court fight could exceed the value of the property someone lost.
This issue also isn’t centered around any specific agency. The agencies that seized the most property in the state are the Kansas Highway Patrol, the Wichita Police Department, the Junction City Police Department, the Geary County Sheriff’s office and the Logan County Sheriff’s office.
Jon Lueth, deputy state director with Americans for Prosperity of Kansas, said he supports police and thinks they should have tools to do their job effectively, but he also said more oversight is needed.
A majority of asset forfeitures are for less than $5,000, and Lueth said taking a few thousand dollars isn’t going to stop criminal organizations. But it will hurt Kansans.
“Go after the bad guys, stop the criminals, stop that flow or process,” he said. “But respect the rights and due process of your average citizen.”
Efforts to change Kansas law have had mixed results. The state now tracks how much agencies seize because of legislative reform, but a bill requiring a conviction and higher burden of proof to take property didn’t get a vote earlier this year in the Legislature. That bill would also require any money police seize to go to the state’s general funds instead of directly to the law enforcement agency.
Klumpp, the legislative liaison for police, doesn’t support that change. He said seized drug money helps fund task forces and law enforcement even uses it to buy drugs for drug busts. Not letting police take that money, Klumpp said, means less money for these specialized task forces.
He did say law enforcement is open to the conversation about change to civil asset forfeiture, but he is happy with laws on the book.
Klumpp pointed to past audits of state law that found Kansas has “strong protections for third party owners of property” and the laws around forfeiture are well designed. Civil asset forfeiture also has a standardized court process.
Legislators will host special meetings on civil asset forfeiture in December which could prompt legislative action early next year.
“Due process is there and people say, ‘Well, there is no due process in it,’” Klumpp said. “We believe that is an inaccurate statement.”
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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