The Kansas Highway Patrol took over $15,000 in cash from Barbara Reese in 1995. For the last 23 years, she has fought to have her money returned. The latest attempt to resolve her situation—a bipartisan measure in the state legislature to compensate her—has been vetoed by the governor.
Back in 1995, Reese was working as an auto dealer. She was driving through Wyandotte County in order to buy vehicles. In the trunk was a suitcase containing her dealer’s license and the $15,000 cash. She was carrying an additional $2,000 with her in the car.
When she was pulled over by the Highway Patrol, they seized her money. They did so even though Reese was not charged with any crime. Law enforcement was able to take Reese’s money by using civil asset forfeiture, a legal procedure where cash or property may be seized if it is suspected of being involved in a crime.
As civil asset forfeiture is a civil procedure, property may be taken even when no criminal charges are filed. This is what happened to Reese that day. In Kansas, all profits from forfeitures go to law enforcement, which has led to accusations of “policing for profit.” Groups from across the political spectrum including the ACLU and the libertarian Institute for Justice argue this incentivizes law enforcement to make such seizures.
In 1996, a judge ordered the Highway Patrol return the money to Reese. However, the Highway Patrol’s attorney said this would not be possible, as the money had already been passed on to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Two years later, Judge Thomas Boeding sent Reese a letter advising her to approach the federal government in order to retrieve her money. This did not work.
Reese recalls the officer who took her money placed his feet up on a desk and said, “Me and my wife can eat a lot of barbecue with this money.”
Barbara Reese is not an angel. In the words of the Highway Patrol’s superintendent, Col. Mark Bruce, Reese is a “career criminal,” someone who has found herself arrested “multiple times in every decade for a period of time spanning 50 years.” She has spent time in prison.
However, Reese’s criminal history is unrelated to this case. Today, she is in her 80s and living in poverty in Topeka. Her education level is that of a sixth-grader. It has been 22 years since a judge ordered her money returned to her.
Learning of Reese’s situation, John Alcala, state representative for Topeka gathered bipartisan support in the state legislature to compensate her. The legislature agreed to an appropriation of $11,800, accounting for the majority of the money which had been taken from her.
When the measure reached his desk, Governor Jeff Coyle vetoed it. “It would be bad precedent and bad policy to make this payment in this manner,” he said.
At the time, Coyle was in a difficult campaign for the nomination for governor in the Republican Party primary. He courted the support of law enforcement. His decision to veto the measure may be related to this. The primary was held on Tuesday; Coyler is currently trailing his opponent by 0.1 percent.
Alcala is not willing to give up. “I’m a reasonable guy. I know right from wrong, and this is so wrong.”
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