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State Auditor: transparency needed in Washington police asset forfeiture

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(The Center Square) – A recent report from the Washington State Auditor’s Office concludes law enforcement agencies are following the rules regarding civil asset forfeiture.

The performance audit also notes law enforcement agencies could be more transparent about seizing assets like automobiles, cash and guns in the course of criminal investigations and how people can get their property returned.

Civil asset forfeiture is a process in which police can take assets from people suspected of involvement with crime or illegal activity without necessarily charging the owners with wrongdoing. Asset forfeiture is a civil process where technically the police agency sues the property itself, not the owner, the report explains.

“This independent analysis offers a clearer picture of a little-understood aspect of our criminal justice system,” State Auditor Pat McCarthy said in a news release about the 110-page report released last week. “Our audit shows that greater transparency regarding civil asset forfeiture can help Washington continue to discourage wrongdoing by seizing material elements of crime while also protecting every person’s right to due process.”

The audit looked at forfeiture practices in eight law enforcement agencies in the state between January 2020 and December 2022: Centralia, Seattle and Yakima police departments; Grant County and Spokane County sheriff’s offices; the Washington State Patrol; Grays Harbor County Drug Task Force; and the Port of Seattle police covering Sea-Tac International Airport.

The audit found that forfeiture typically involves low-value property, worth $2,000 or less. Nearly three-quarters of the property seized was cash. The report notes that state law lets police agencies keep 90% of the proceeds from forfeitures and to use the money to “help disrupt illegal drug activity.”

Forfeiture disproportionately affected some racial and ethnic groups, the report says. For five agencies, forfeiture was used more in cases involving people where were Black, Hispanic, or Asian and Pacific Islander. Two other agencies used forfeiture more often in cases involving white people.

The law gives police broad authority but few protections to property owners, according to the report, pointing out that police agencies themselves determine whether their property seizures are appropriate. The audit called that an apparent conflict of interest.

Police agencies could do more to help people receive notice and understand how to reclaim property. The audit recommends communicating in plain language, in languages other than English, and confirming delivery of legal notices.

Other recommendations from the audit include the Legislature forming a task force to review different aspects of civil asset forfeiture, including requiring police to report more data on their forfeiture activity.

More than 100 of the state’s 250 police agencies reported receiving nearly $40 million from local, state and federal forfeitures, per the report.

The Center Square reached out to the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs for comment on the audit and the issue of civil asset forfeiture.

A spokesperson referenced a public hearing next week on civil asset forfeiture in declining to comment on the issue, but did include a statement from Steve Strachan, WASPC executive director, on the audit.

“We were pleased to see the SAO clearly conclude that law enforcement agencies followed the law related to civil asset forfeitures,” he said. “We have some questions regarding the assumptions and objectivity of this report that we hope to address with the State Auditor’s Office at the appropriate time.”