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More transparency needed for Washington police asset seizures, audit says

Claire Withycombe, The Seattle Times on

Published in News & Features

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A new state audit says that Washington police agencies could be more transparent about the process of seizing assets like cars, cash or guns in the course of criminal investigations and clearer about how people can get that property back.

Police, in a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, can seize items they believe were used in a crime without an arrest, criminal charge or conviction of the person who owns the property.

But the Washington Office of the State Auditor, in a review of how several Washington police agencies handle the process, found that in most cases, a person who had property seized through forfeiture wasn't convicted of a crime.

In recent years, 32 states and the federal government have taken steps to limit or make tweaks to civil asset forfeiture, like raising the standard of evidence for seizing and keeping property, according to the report. Proponents argue that the practice deters people from committing crimes and pours resources back into fighting crime, while opponents have raised concerns about due process and property rights.

Between January 2020 and December 2022, more than 100 of Washington's 250 police agencies got nearly $30 million in property from local and state forfeitures, according to the state auditor's office. They received an additional $10 million through a partnership with the federal government.

State law lets police agencies keep 90% of the proceeds from forfeitures and to use the money to "help disrupt illegal drug activity," the report said.


Asset forfeiture is a civil process, where technically the police agency sues the property. Unlike a criminal case, a person whose property is seized isn't guaranteed the right to a lawyer in the proceeding, if they can't pay for one.

The report took a closer look at eight police agencies, including the Seattle Police Department. Agencies were chosen based on location, the type of agency and level of civil asset forfeiture activity.

Auditors found that among the 1,000 people who were faced with forfeiture at those eight agencies, only 25% were convicted of a crime. Auditors also found that police often seized property worth less than $2,000, and that at the agencies that were audited, at least one racial or ethnic group was overrepresented in forfeiture data compared with their share of the population, but there were variations between agencies in how much each group was overrepresented.

At the Seattle Police Department, for example, Latinos made up an estimated 23% of the people whose assets were forfeited, despite being 7% of the population, and Black people 17%, despite being 7% of the population. But at the Grays Harbor County Drug Task Force, white people were overrepresented by 9 percentage points.


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