Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Bill Would Bar Forfeiture of Property Without Convictions

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

A bill was introduced in the Senate today to bar government forfeiture and sale of a person's property unless the person has been convicted of a crime.  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 (RCW 69.50.505).  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.

"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.  Forfeiting a person's property without a conviction undermines the bedrock principle of our legal system – that a person is innocent until proven guilty," said Jerry Sheehan, Legislative Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

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 (ballot Measure 3) to require a criminal conviction before a forfeiture action is completed.  Utah's voters also approved such a measure in the 2000 election.