House committee seeks input from all sources in hearings on civil asset forfeiture, racial profiling

The House’s Special Committee on Criminal Justice will meet next week and again in August to develop potential legislation dealing with civil asset forfeiture and racial profiling by law enforcement.

Representative Shamed Dogan (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The hearings have been spurred by the 2018 Vehicle Stops Report from the Office of Attorney General Eric Schmitt (R), and a report from State Auditor Nicole Galloway (D) on civil asset forfeiture.

Committee Chairman Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin) cited Galloway’s report which said $9.1-million in cash and property was seized in 2018, compared to $7.1-million in 2017.  He called the findings a “call to action” for the committee and the legislature to balance Missourians’ rights against law enforcement’s duty to protect the public.

“We want to try and curb some of the abuses of that and come to some kind of a compromise where law enforcement can go after drug cartels.  No one’s trying to prohibit them from going after people who are drug dealers, but we just want to make sure that whenever possible, they do that through state law, which does require criminal convictions before you can take someone’s property,” said Dogan.

The traffic stops report showed the largest racial disparity in vehicle stops in state history, with African-Americans 91-percent more likely to be stopped by law enforcement than whites.

Dogan said the findings are frustrating, especially since that disparity has grown from about 27-percent in the 2000 report.

“I don’t think it makes sense to try to say that that increase in the disparity is because African-Americans are driving worse,” said Dogan.  “One of the explanations, to me, that make sense is just that law enforcement, for whatever reason, is wasting a lot of their time and resources on people who haven’t done anything wrong because they’re in search of people who have done something wrong, and that’s just a waste of their time and energy.”

Dogan said the disparity continues in the statistics on vehicle searches.

“Once the vehicles are stopped, they search the vehicles of African-Americans and Hispanics more than they do whites, but they’re less likely to find guns, or drugs, or other contraband on blacks or Hispanics than they are on whites, so again this is a mismatch of resources,” said Dogan.  “Why are you searching people of those racial categories more when they’re less likely to be carrying something illegally?”

St. Louis representative Steven Roberts is the top Democrat on the Committee on Criminal Justice.  He said there could be several legislative solutions for racial profiling.

Representative Steven Roberts (photo: Ben Peters, Missouri House Communications)

“The first thing, of course, is recognizing, look, there’s a problem here, then we can go forth fixing the issue, and I think the Attorney General’s report further proves what a lot of us have known:  that we’ve got a problem here,” said Roberts.

Roberts hopes the hearings this summer will help the committee flesh out the language of House Bill 444, which proposed banning the confiscation of assets from a person who hasn’t been convicted of a crime.

Dogan said he wants anyone with something to say about these issues to weigh in, and that includes members of the public, prosecutors, and law enforcement.  He said past efforts to pass legislation dealing with these issues have run into resistance, particularly from law enforcement groups, and he wants to get past that.

“We really do have to have buy-in from law enforcement but we also have to have constructive criticism, because I think the frustration with myself and a lot of my colleagues is just that law enforcement says ‘no,’ to these bills, or to the idea of reforms, but they never give us something that they can say ‘yes’ to.  Let’s come to a compromise on racial profiling,” said Dogan.

The Special Committee’s hearings take place Wednesday, July 24 at 9 a.m. in the St. Louis County Council Chambers, and Thursday, August 1 at 1 a.m. at the Robert J. Mohart Multi-Purpose Center in Kansas City.

House votes to require monthly reporting on settlements in cases against Missouri

The House has voted to increase transparency when lawsuits against state agencies are settled.  The legislation was prompted by the revelation that millions of tax dollars were paid out over several years in settling harassment and discrimination cases against the Department of Corrections.

Representative Paul Fitzwater (R-Potosi) carried HCB 7 on the House Floor.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Paul Fitzwater (R-Potosi) carried HCB 7 on the House Floor. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Committee Bill 7 would require the attorney general to report every month to the legislature and others about how the state’s legal expense fund – the fund from which money for settlements is taken – has been used.

Those cases against Corrections came to light late last year when an article on detailed several of them, and outlined how employees who complained about being harassed or discriminated against were victims of retaliation by fellow Corrections staff members.

House members said after the article came out that they were unaware of the settlements because those have been paid out of a line in the budget that has no spending limit on it.  That meant departments never had to come to the legislature and justify how much their settlement agreements were costing the state.

St. Charles Republican Kathie Conway, who chairs the appropriations committee that oversees Corrections, said this bill is needed.

“This is something that needs to be in statute so that the legislature is not caught unaware of all the goings on in different departments,” said Conway.

House Democrat Leader Gail McCann Beatty hopes to prevent state employees who have complained of harassment or discrimination from having to sign gag orders as part of court settlements.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
House Democrat Leader Gail McCann Beatty hopes to prevent state employees who have complained of harassment or discrimination from having to sign gag orders as part of court settlements. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Democrat leader Gail McCann Beatty (Kansas City) proposed that the reporting should cover all state agencies and not just the Department of Corrections.  She said the reporting requirements could lead the legislature to make changes in policies or laws to address issues resulting in lawsuits in other agencies.

She hopes the legislature will go further and address the signing of gag orders by state employees who complain of harassment or discrimination, as some in the Corrections cases did under the terms of their settlements.

“While we can sunshine and get this information it does not give that employee the opportunity to give their side,” said McCann Beatty.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley (R) announced in March he would begin monthly reporting on the activity of the legal expense fund.  Legislators praised his decision but said HCB 7 is still needed to ensure future attorneys general will follow suit.

Hawley’s first such report comes out April 30.

HCB 7 would also require the Department of Corrections’ director to meet with the House’s committee overseeing that department twice each year to discuss issues with that department.

The House voted 150-1 to send the bill to the Senate, but only two weeks remain in the legislative session for that body to consider it.