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Published on Friday, January 13, 2017

Civil asset forfeiture comes under scrutiny by House and Senate committees during first week of session

During the first week of session, both the House Judiciary and Senate Law & Justice Committees heard bills related to civil asset forfeiture.

Currently law enforcement agencies may pursue civil asset forfeiture in cases when the property itself is illegal, used to facilitate a crime, is the actual proceeds of a crime, or purchased from proceeds traceable to criminal activity. Forfeiture is permitted under numerous statutes, including in the case of drug crimes, human sex trafficking crimes, and felony crimes. The seizing agency must comply with specific statutory due process requirements, which operate separately from a criminal proceeding meaning that asset forfeiture can occur without a criminal conviction. Agencies that use this tool may keep the proceeds so long as they use them for law enforcement purposes and cannot supplant other funding sources. They are also required to report to the State Treasurer quarterly and remit 10 percent of the net proceeds of any forfeiture to the State.

These bills would create additional requirements and standards for civil asset forfeiture:

HB 1016 heard in the House Judiciary Committee would require a felony criminal conviction prior to forfeiture and that the property be “directly” related to the criminal activity. AWC, along with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) and the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (WAPA), opposed these changes as they would make it nearly impossible to pursue asset forfeiture. In spite of our opposition, the bill is scheduled for executive action in the Judiciary Committee on January 19.

SB 5044 was heard in the Senate Law & Justice Committee and would increase the standard for forfeiture from a preponderance of the evidence to clear, cogent and convincing evidence. Again, AWC along with WASPC and WAPA opposed this increase to the burden of proof as unnecessary without clear evidence of a need for a change.

The Senate Law & Justice Committee also heard a draft bill that would increase the reporting requirements for jurisdictions that use asset forfeiture. AWC testified “other” on this draft proposal based on our uncertainty of the potential impacts and because agencies already report and it appears that little effort has been made to use the data currently reported to the state Treasurer. However, we support transparency in this process and are not entirely opposed to expanded reporting.

We encourage cities interested in this topic to contact members of these committees and express your concerns with the proposed changes.