Washington’s laws give police too much leeway, and incentive, to label and seize property as the profits of drug dealing. Now the U.S. Department of Justice wants to expand use of the flawed law. The Legislature shouldn’t let them.
POLICE in Sunnyside didn’t have enough evidence to prove Andreas Gonzalez’s BMW and $5,940 cash were profits from drug dealing. But under Washington’s flawed forfeiture laws, that didn’t stop the cops from seizing them.
That happens routinely in Washington, and it’s a problem. Police agencies across the state seized nearly $9 million last year in assets allegedly bought with illegal drug profits.
But the laws do not require a conviction before police declare those assets to be forfeited. State law sets one of the nation’s lowest legal thresholds for police to actually prove dirty drug money bought the assets. Sometimes property is later found to have been wrongly seized. And they give police an incentive to abuse the forfeiture process, allowing agencies to keep 90 percent of profits from the sale of seized properties.
The Legislature has failed to fix this flawed scheme, despite support from an unusual coalition of Seattle liberals and Eastern Washington libertarians.
And now comes a new directive from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to ramp up forfeitures nationwide. In particular, Sessions seems a fan of a so-called “adoptive forfeiture” approach, in which federal agents ask local police to seize properties on the feds’ behalf.
Sessions’ announcement sparked protests across the political spectrum — the conservative Koch brothers joined the NAACP in opposition.
Law enforcement defends forfeiture with the memories of “Miami Vice” — flashy cars and toys bought by cocaine dealers operating beyond the law.
In some cases, forfeiture is justified and useful for public safety. But Washington, like other states, gives too much leeway. Consider Gonzalez’s lost car and cash, which he won back last month after a unanimous ruling before the state Supreme Court.
According to the court file, police suspected Gonzalez’s 2001 BMW and cash were payment for a drug deal, but had scant evidence. Nonetheless, his case wound through four levels of the courts — his car and cash held meanwhile. The Supreme Court finally declared, “There was no evidence to support a finding that Gonzalez obtained his property through the specific unlawful means.”
Under this upside-down forfeiture law, Gonzalez had to prove he deserved his car and money back. In fact, it should be the other way around, with cops defending their asset seizures.
Not surprising, Washington’s forfeiture laws got a D- grade in a national survey by the Institute for Justice. States with similar politics — including Oregon, California and Colorado — require a higher standard of proof than Washington in these cases. At least 13 states require conviction before assets can be seized. California caps police profits from seized property.
With the Justice Department ramping up these cases, and with trust in police low, the state Legislature needs to set more reasonable guidelines. Rep. David Taylor, a conservative Republican from Moxee in the Yakima Valley, filed bills doing so for two straight years; so has Sen. Bob Hasegawa, a liberal Seattle Democrat running for mayor.
Reminding opponents about a bedrock American value — “the original intent of innocent until proven guilty” — Taylor said a change to the law can be made next year.