A bill that would penalize law enforcement agencies that fail to report how much cash and property they seize through asset forfeiture is moving through the state legislature.
The House Judiciary Committee passed the bill on Wednesday, despite concerns from law enforcement advocates that the legislation would bring undue financial and workload burdens on local agencies.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Savannah Maddox from Dry Ridge and Rep. Jerry Miller from Louisville, both Republicans. If passed, it would prohibit law enforcement agencies from spending their forfeiture proceeds if they don’t file required annual reports to the state detailing their seizures. The bill also imposes a $500 fine for agencies that fail to report each year.
Asset forfeiture is a common practice for police agencies across Kentucky. Under state law, law enforcement agencies keep 85 percent of what they take and the rest is distributed to prosecutors. Since 2013, agencies have collectively seized more than $61 million in cash and thousands of vehicles and guns from residents.
But not every agency discloses what they take, even though it’s already required by state law.
A 2018 KyCIR report found just 11 percent of law enforcement agencies submitted the required reports each year between 2013 – 2017. In the years since, the number of agencies submitting the reports has more than doubled.
Maddox said she’s worked on the bill for a year and it’s aim is to increase transparency.
“With power comes great responsibility,” she said. “It’s important to demonstrate an appropriate level of transparency and record keeping anytime the force of government is involved in taking assets from its citizens.”
Current state law requires agencies to submit a “detailed listing of all money and property seized” at the end of each fiscal year.” Maddox’s bill goes a bit further and would require agencies to disclose the date and location of each seizure, the outcome of any charges related to the seizure and whether the property was kept or returned.
If property is kept, agencies would have to disclose whether the forfeiture stemmed from a federal agency or task force, if there was a counterclaim for the return of the property, and if the forfeiture was the result of a plea agreement.
Jacky Hunt, the director of the South Central Kentucky Drug Task Force, told the committee the information sought by the bill is already included in court records. Compiling the more detailed statistics would put “an undue burden” on agencies like his, Hunt said.
“I wouldn’t have a problem with enforcing what we already have on the books. We can do a better job with that,” he said.
Rep. Angie Hatton, a Democrat from Whitesburg, was the only committee member to not vote in favor of the legislation. She said she passed because of her unresolved concerns about the burden the bill would put on law enforcement agencies.
“I can’t ignore the concerns of my law enforcement officials back home that are telling me this is going to be a burden,” she said. “I’d like to hear some more details before I vote.”
Rep. Stan Lee, a Republican from Lexington, said there may be a learning curve to adhere to the added requirements of the bill, but it’s an important issue that demands transparency. The perceived burdens, Lee said, seem minimal.
“I think it’s good legislation,” he said. “We’re talking about the assets of citizens … to me that’s a big deal, given the Constitution and all.”
The bill will likely face some changes before it’s approved by the full House. Rep. John Blanton, a Republican from Salyersville, said his support for the bill is contingent on the ability to amend the bill based on the concerns of some law enforcement.
Blanton, a former major with the Kentucky State Police, said transparency is important, but some changes may be necessary.
Maddox said she welcomes those discussions.
Rep. Jason Nemes, a Republican from Louisville, said the bill is a good start — but he doesn’t think it goes far enough.
“Assets that have been taken are a huge stick, a huge stick for prosecutors and law enforcement,” he said. “I will strongly oppose anything that continues to water this bill down.”