In February 2018, a housekeeper in a hotel in St. Matthews, Kentucky found $193,049 hidden away in room 403. The hotel’s management called local law enforcement, who suspected the cash was linked to drugs.
The St. Matthews Police Department filed a civil lawsuit against the man who had rented the room. His co-defendant in the case was the $193,049. A judge ordered that the police department could keep 85 percent of the cash while the remaining 15 percent would go to the prosecutor’s office. The man who rented the room was not charged with any crime.
Law enforcement took the man’s money using a procedure known as civil asset forfeiture. Using this facet of the law, police may seize an individual’s property if they suspect it was involved in a crime. Police do not need to file criminal charges in order to carry this out.
As 100% of the money from forfeitures goes to law enforcement, those against civil asset forfeiture argue that it is in law enforcement’s interests to carry out civil asset forfeitures. As Independent Police Department Chief Anthony Lucas explained, seizures are used to plug budgetary holes. His department used forfeiture cash to buy protective vests for officers. “That’s saved the city money,” said Lucas to the press.
While Kentucky requires its law enforcement departments to report civil asset forfeiture seizures, few agencies comply. “Kentucky law makes clear that the responsibility to report asset forfeiture rests solely with the local agency,” said Mike Wynn of the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. “It does not provide any enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance.”
While the $193,049 seized by St. Matthews PD brought in more cash than seizures made by many other agencies in the five-year period 2013-17, it was never reported. It is unclear how many of Kentucky’s civil asset forfeitures go unreported, although it could be as high as 90 percent.
Since civil asset forfeitures are used as revenue, organizations like the libertarian Institute for Justice (IJ) argue that this lack of reporting is a problem. “It puts in place a perverse incentive that makes Kentucky particularly vulnerable to instances of corruption and abuse of power,” said Kate Miller of IJ.
Many law enforcement officials across the state are unaware of the requirement to report civil forfeitures. “I’m going to plead ignorance,” said Letcher County Chief Deputy Barry Engle. “I don’t have a clue what the law is.” Engle was recently promoted to his role after his predecessor was convicted of stealing cash and guns from the evidence locker.
Eddie Jones, assistant chief of police at St. Matthews, said he didn’t believe seizures had been reported in about a decade. This was “just an oversight,” he said. “I think [the state officials] are just happy to get another agency on board. If there are ramifications [for not reporting], they’re not enforced.”
Attempts to remove funding from agencies that do not report their civil forfeitures have died in the legislature. Even though state Sen Whitney Westerfield (R-Hopkinsville) agrees the lack of reporting is “obviously a problem,” he does not believe reform of civil asset forfeiture to be a priority in the legislature.
State Sen Ray Jones II (D-Pikeville) believes attempts to reform civil asset forfeiture are doomed to fail unless underlying budgetary issues are also addressed. “Until you adequately fund state government agencies,” he said, “you’re going to see a lot of reluctance. It will be hard to pass any kind of reform on asset forfeiture.”
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