WA Bill Would Bar Police Seizure of Property Without a Conviction

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
February 8, 2001 12:00 am

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OLYMPIA, WA–The American Civil Liberties Union today applauded a bill introduced in the Washington Senate that would bar government forfeiture and sale of a person’s property unless that person has been convicted of a crime.

“Allowing authorities to take away and sell a person’s vehicle or home without proving that he or she has done something wrong flies in the face of American values,” said Jerry Sheehan, Legislative Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. “Forfeiting a person’s property without a conviction undermines the bedrock principle of our legal system: that a person is innocent until proven guilty.”

Senate Bill 5935 would require a criminal conviction before the government can seize and sell property under the state’s Drug Seizure and Forfeiture law. The bill would also direct that proceeds from seized property be used exclusively for drug treatment. Senator Dow Constantine is prime sponsor of the measure.

Civil forfeiture of property prior to conviction has been a popular tactic in the War on Drugs. Under current law, police officers’ mere belief that a person may have intended to use property in the commission of a crime can trigger seizure and sale of the property. More than $42 million has been forfeited under the state’s current law over the past eight years. People who are innocent of any wrongdoing can lose cars, houses, cash, and other property. Police agencies keep 90 percent of the proceeds generated through these sales, providing an incentive for property seizures.

Last November, Oregon voters amended their state constitution to require a criminal conviction before a forfeiture action is completed. Utah’s voters also approved such a measure in the 2000 election.

Federal asset forfeiture laws have been challenged by a remarkable coalition of liberal and conservative members of Congress and a diverse collection of organizations, including the ACLU, the National Rifle Association, the American Bankers Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Americans for Tax Reform.

Last year, Congress approved legislation to make it harder for the federal government to confiscate people’s assets before bringing charges in criminal cases.

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