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Getting property back from Kansas police is really hard, even for the innocent. That will change

Dewonna Goodridge stands in front of her 2007 Chevy Tahoe.
Kansas Justice Institute
Police seized Dewonna Goodridge's car and held onto it for eight months without ever charging her with a crime. A new Kansas law tightens the rules on civil asset forfeiture.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly signed the Kansas law that denies civil asset forfeiture in cases of lower level crimes like simple possession of drugs. It also forces police to return seized property faster.

Deputies of the Geary County Sheriff’s Office seized Dewonna Goodridge’s 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe in Junction City, Kansas, last June through the state’s civil asset forfeiture rules. It took months for her to get it back.

Court records show law enforcement alleged the vehicle was connected to drug activity, making it eligible for seizure. But Goodridge was not driving the car during the alleged traffic incident that involved her son and she was never charged with a crime.

The Kansas Justice Institute — a subsidiary of the fiscally conservative think tank the Kansas Policy Institute — argued in court that law enforcement wrongfully searched the vehicle when responding to an alleged traffic violation by Goodridge’s son. The responding officer claimed to find a small amount of marijuana, but did not provide evidence of it.

The Kansas Justice Institute called the seizure of the vehicle illegal and demanded that it be returned to Goodridge. In February, law enforcement dropped the case and returned the car after holding it for eight months.

Goodridge said that the seizure was unfair and required her to go to court and pay legal fees for a case that shouldn’t have happened.

“What the government expects you to do is give up and walk away,” Goodridge said in a news release. “They expect you to give up so they can keep the car.”

Sam MacRoberts, litigation director for the Kansas Justice Institute, said Goodridge’s experience is an example of how the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws unfairly favored law enforcement. But that is changing after Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly on Tuesday signed off on a new law that tightens rules on property seizure.

The new law raises the legal standard for forfeitures, requiring law enforcement to show that the property is highly likely connected to a crime. It speeds up the court process and forces the return of seized property faster. It also denies forfeiture in cases of lower level crimes like simple possession of drugs.

MacRoberts said the new law gives people a fighting chance at getting their property back.

“It was incredibly easy for the government to make an accusation and then be able to take a person's car or their cash,” MacRoberts said. “This allows Kansans to be able to get into court and get their money and their cars back from the government.”

Kelly said in a news release announcing the new law that it will ensure fairness and accountability in asset forfeiture court cases.

Kelly said the price to recover seized property often costs more than the value of the item. The law includes a provision requiring law enforcement to pay legal fees if an individual successfully argues in court that their property should be returned.

“These reforms will protect the rights of property owners,” Kelly said, “and promote greater transparency in law enforcement practices.”

The bill received broad bipartisan support in the Kansas Legislature. After years of discussions on the issue, lawmakers landed on a bill based on recommendations from a Kansas Judicial Council advisory committee.

In support of the bill, Republican Sen. Kellie Warren pointed to studies that show police are incentivized to seize property to help fund their agencies.

“Police departments who collect higher shares of their revenue from fines, fees and forfeitures,” Warren said, “solve crime at significantly lower rates.”

MacRoberts and criminal justice reform groups had called for the law to go further, including provisions that deny forfeitures unless someone is convicted of a crime and require juries to make the determination on losing property, rather than a judge.

But many law enforcement officials had opposed those stricter changes. KBI Director Tony Mattivi told lawmakers that asset forfeiture is an important tool for stopping the flow of drugs like fentanyl into the state.

“At a time when Mexican drug cartels are purposely flooding our state with deadly fentanyl, and Kansans dying by the dozens,” Mattivi said, “now is not the time to eliminate or even curb, one of law enforcement’s most effective tools.”

Law enforcement in Kansas seized nearly $4 million worth of property in 2023, according to a Kansas Bureau of Investigation report. A total of $2.38 million worth of property was officially forfeited through the court process, and more than 80% of the cases involved possession or distribution of drugs.

Mattivi said in a statement to the Kansas News Service that the KBI supports what was ultimately included in the final bill and thanked the Legislature for the compromise.

“We believe the amended law is an appropriate balance of protecting property rights of Kansans,” Mattivi said, “while maintaining asset forfeiture as a valuable tool that law enforcement uses to combat crime.

MacRoberts said the Kansas Justice Institute will continue to advocate for further tightening of the law.

“These are solid reforms that we think are going to help cut down on the abuse and forfeiture cases,” MacRoberts said. “And I'm confident that if these reforms didn't go far enough, this will be revisited in the Legislature.”

Dylan Lysen reports on social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Threads @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

As the Kansas social services and criminal justice reporter, I want to inform our audience about how the state government wants to help its residents and keep their communities safe. Sometimes that means I follow developments in the Legislature and explain how lawmakers alter laws and services of the state government. Other times, it means questioning the effectiveness of state programs and law enforcement methods. And most importantly, it includes making sure the voices of everyday Kansans are heard. You can reach me at dlysen@kcur.org, 816-235-8027 or on Threads, @DylanLysen.
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