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Law Enforcement Would Disclose More About Seized Cash, Property Under Proposed Bill

Image courtesy of Public Domain Pictures.

Image courtesy of Public Domain Pictures.

A Republican lawmaker filed a bill Tuesday that would withhold some funding from law enforcement agencies — unless they report details on their asset forfeiture activity every year.

The measure is sponsored by Rep. Savannah Maddox from Dry Ridge. It would bolster existing reporting requirements related to the seizing of cash and property by law enforcement, and agencies that don’t comply would lose out on money from the Kentucky Law Enforcement Foundation Program fund. Current law allows law enforcement agencies to keep most of the proceeds of assets seized under state law if they suspect the property is tied to criminal activity. They’re required to file annual reports disclosing the seizures, but few do, according to an investigation last year by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

That investigation found that just 11 percent of the 323 law enforcement agencies listed in statewide data had submitted the required reports each year between fiscal years 2013-17. Kentucky agencies reported seizing at least $36 million during that time.

Rep. Savannah Maddox, R-Dry Ridge. Image courtesy of Kentucky Legislature.

Rep. Savannah Maddox, R-Dry Ridge. Image courtesy of Kentucky Legislature. United States, 2019.

Maddox said the bill would improve the public’s access to information about law enforcement’s seizures.

“It’s very important to create transparency,” said Maddox, who began serving her first House term in January.

The proposal would add several requirements to the current reporting law: Law enforcement would be required to describe all money and property seized, along with details about when and where the seizure occurred; the alleged criminal offenses associated with the seizure; the outcome of any charges levied against defendants; and whether the property was returned, kept, sold or converted to government use.

The bill would require the reports be filed with the state’s Justice and Public Safety Cabinet within 30 days of the end of the fiscal year. Agencies that fail to do so could be liable to the state for the full value of all property and money seized, and could risk becoming ineligible to receive funds from the Law Enforcement Foundation Program, which provides incentive payments to officers.

A spokesman for the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet said department officials have not yet reviewed the proposal.

Maddox said the fiscal penalty helps ensure agencies make reporting a continued priority.

She hopes the proposal won’t garner much pushback, but she acknowledges there could be some concern among law enforcement.

The bill was introduced late Tuesday on the filing deadline, and a copy of the language had not yet been posted to the state’s website Tuesday evening. But word about the proposal had started to spread.

Andrew McNeill, the state chapter director for Americans For Prosperity, a libertarian advocacy group, declined to endorse the bill or comment on the bill’s specifics until he reads the proposal.

But he said the bill will draw attention to potential reforms his organization thinks are needed when it comes to Kentucky’s asset forfeiture laws.

“It’s going to be a bill that’s going to serve its purpose: getting the conversation started,” McNeill said.

Kate Miller, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said the group is supportive of efforts to increase transparency related to asset forfeiture.

“Depends on the details, but it seems like a modest step in right direction,” she said. “It presents this really unique opportunity for organizations to work together that historically not have had much common ground.”

Mason County Sheriff Patrick Boggs, the president of the Kentucky Sheriffs’ Association, hadn’t yet read the bill when reached by phone Tuesday. But he said agencies should certainly be following the law and reporting what they seize.

Asked if withholding funds would be an appropriate penalty for failing to do so, Boggs said there needs to be “consequences for everything.”

Shawn Butler, the executive director of the Kentucky Association of Chiefs of Police, declined to comment until he is able to read the bill.

“But I’m sure this will be something that’s on our radar,” he said.

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