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Even law-abiding citizens can have property seized by police under forfeiture laws

Posted by Steve Karimi | Aug 09, 2016 | 0 Comments

Even though an Arizona woman committed no crime, she still had to pay $2,000, plus attorney's fees, to get her car back after it was seized by police.

It is a feature of forfeiture laws in many states, including Washington, that let authorities seize property used in criminal activity or purchased with money that comes from criminal activity. Though neither was the case for the Tucson-area woman, she still had to pay.

The woman loaned her car to her son so he could take his daughter to school. While in possession of the car, the son was arrested on suspicion of credit-card fraud. The woman had to hire a lawyer to challenge the seizure and forfeiture proceedings. In early July authorities agreed to return the 11-year-old car after she paid $2,000 into an anti-racketeering fund, with $1,500 going to police and $500 to the county attorney's office. In five recent cases in the Tucson area, the county returned the vehicles, yet still made the owners pay thousands of dollars to get them back.

The law is supposed to deter vehicle owners from allowing their property to be used in criminal activity, according to a county attorney, but defense attorneys and civil rights advocates say the seizure law is unconstitutional. Instead of penalizing the organized crime defendants prosecutors are after, the laws more frequently punish innocent citizens.

Arizona's “innocent third-party defense” is supposed to protect people who could not reasonably be expected to know their vehicle would be used in a crime. Yet four of the five vehicles recently seized and returned for a fee, were loaned to family and friends who were arrested. The owners of the vehicles committed no crimes, according to attorneys.

In recent years, legislatures in California, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Vermont have approved higher thresholds for asset seizure.

The nonprofit Institute For Justice gave Washington state a grade of D-minus for it's civil forfeiture laws, what the institute calls “policing for profit.” The poor grade was based on:

  • Low bar to forfeit and no conviction required.
  • Poor protections for innocent third-party property owners.
  • 90 percent of forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement.

Annually, the average estimated amount of forfeiture proceeds in Washington State is $8,337,606.

According to the Revised Code of Washington, the following are subject to seizure and forfeiture and no property right exists for them:

All personal property, including, but not limited to, any item, object, tool, substance, device, weapon, machine, vehicle of any kind, money, security, or negotiable instrument, which has been or was actually employed as an instrumentality in the commission of, or in aiding or abetting in the commission of any felony, or which was furnished or was intended to be furnished by any person in the commission of, as a result of, or as compensation for the commission of, any felony, or which was acquired in whole or in part with proceeds traceable to the commission of a felony.

However, no property may be forfeited under this section until after there has been a superior court conviction of the owner of the property for the felony in connection with which the property was employed, furnished, or acquired.

No matter the crime or the circumstances, every defendant has a right to representation by a qualified attorney. If you have been arrested and face criminal charges, call the Seattle law office of Steve Karimi at (206) 621-8777 or contact him online.

About the Author

Steve Karimi

Steve Karimi attended Pepperdine University School of Law. After graduation he worked as a prosecutor in Seattle where he gained valuable insight to the criminal justice system. Attorney Karimi uses his experiences as a prosecutor everyday only now he fights for the justice of those accused.

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If you were arrested or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Seattle or surrounding areas of Washington State, the Law Offices of Steve Karimi can help. Call 206-621-8777 during regular business hours or 206-660-6200 24 hours a day for a free consultation.

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Named a "rising star" in criminal defense by Washington Law and Politics magazine, Mr. Karimi is a former prosecutor for King County who uses his insight into prosecution strategies to protect his clients' rights in criminal court.