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Police Must Detail Seizures Or Lose Training Money Under Proposed Bill

Money seized at the St. Matthews Hilton, per court records.
Kate Howard
Money seized at the St. Matthews Hilton, per court records.

A bill filed this week in the General Assembly would require law enforcement agencies to disclose more details about cash and property seized through asset forfeiture or be subjected to financial penalties.

Rep. Reginald Meeks, a Louisville Democrat, is sponsoring the measure, which would beef up existing reporting requirements. Agencies that don’t comply would lose $4,000 reimbursements from a state fund for individual officers who complete continued training.

Law enforcement agencies are already required to file annual reports detailing how much cash and property they seize, but not all do. State data analyzed by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found just 11 percent of law enforcement agencies submitted required reports each year between fiscal years 2013-2017. In that time, the agencies that did submit the required reports seized about $36 million.

Meeks said asset forfeiture is a financial boon for some counties and any process that takes property from people demands transparency and discussion.

“It's a slippery slope when counties start funding serious components of their operation off the backs of these people,” Meeks said. “That feeds the proverbial industry of incarceration.”

State law allows law enforcement agencies to keep 85 percent of what they take. Prosecutors keep the rest. That wouldn’t change under Meeks’ bill. But agencies would be required to provide a greater degree of detail about what they take.

(Read: "Drones, Guns And Light Bills: How Kentucky Police Spend Seized Cash")

Currently, law requires agencies to submit a “detailed listing of all money and property seized” at the end of each fiscal year. But Meeks’ bill would bolster that by requiring agencies to list the date and location of each seizure, a description of what was seized, the name of the person subjected to the seizure, the criminal charges tied to the seizure and the outcome of those charges. Agencies would also have to explain details about the disposition of the property seized -- if it was returned, destroyed, or kept.

Agencies would also be required to disclose if the seizure was made by a federal agency or through a task force of multiple agencies.

Failing to submit a report would make agencies ineligible under the measure to receive the officer training funding from the Kentucky Law Enforcement Foundation Program, or KLEFP, which is funded through a surcharge on certain state insurance policies. 

Meeks’ bill also seeks to establish a protocol to enable the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet to enforce the reporting requirement. Under his proposal, the cabinet would refer agencies that fail to report to the Office of the Attorney General, which would institute civil action to collect any money or property seized through asset forfeiture by the agency.

Justice Cabinet officials would also be required to provide legislators with a summary report of what law enforcement agencies reported seizing each year, under the bill.

Lisa Lamb, a spokesperson for the cabinet, said the agency doesn’t have a position on the bill.

Meeks has served in the House since 2001. As a Democrat in the Republican-controlled legislature he will face an uphill battle to see his bill considered in a committee, let alone pass one.

“I think that there are people out here who want to have this discussion and who deserve the opportunity to have this discussion,” Meeks said. “If the Republican leadership doesn’t agree with that then they won’t let it be heard.”

Republicans have pushed similar efforts to reform the state’s asset forfeiture practice.

Meeks’ bill bears similarities to a measure filed last year by Rep. Savannah Maddox, a Republican from Dry Ridge. That bill also called for more details about seized property and threatened to withhold officer training funding if agencies failed to report. Maddox’s bill died in committee.

Meeks’ bill has yet to be assigned to a committee as of Wednesday morning. But it’s already drawing ire from some law enforcement advocates.

Jerry Wagner, the executive director of the Kentucky Sheriffs’ Association, said he would not support any measure that jeopardizes funds meant to support officers.

Stripping those particular funds due to a law enforcement agency’s failing is unfair and short sighted, he said. 

“You’re going after the wrong people,” Wagner said. “If an adult breaks the law, you don’t go after the children.”

The bill’s fiscal impact is “indeterminable,” but the financial penalty of withholding the officer training funds would impact morale and affect retention and recruitment of officers, according to documents filed with the bill.

The Kentucky Law Enforcement Foundation Program fund is administered by the Department of Criminal Justice Training. A 2016 state audit found excessive travel spending, unpermitted purchases, and questionable hiring decisions with those funds. 

The DOCJT took in more than $67 million in Kentucky Law Enforcement Foundation Program funds in fiscal year 2016, Harmon reported.

Wagner said he could be swayed to support the bill if language was amended to hold agency leaders accountable, instead of focusing on  officers’ funds. “You’re penalizing people who have no control,” Wagner said.

But Wagner and other law enforcement officials agree that agencies should be disclosing what they take through asset forfeiture.

“It’s a matter of transparency and accountability,” said Daviess County Sheriff Keith Cain. 

Cain, a two-time president of the Kentucky Sheriff’s Association, said asset forfeiture is “under attack” and agencies can help squash concerns about the practice by being open with what they seize.

“We are in the business of enforcing the law,” Cain said. “It would send a negative message if we chose to ignore it.”

Contact Jacob Ryan at (502) 814.6559 or jryan@kycir.org.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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