Washington earns a D- for its civil forfeiture laws
Low bar to forfeit and no conviction required
Poor protections for innocent third-party property owners
90% of forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement
State Forfeiture Laws
Washington’s civil forfeiture laws are among the nation’s worst, earning a D-. State law only requires the government to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that property is associated with criminal activity in order to forfeit it. Furthermore, innocent owners bear the burden of demonstrating that they had nothing to do with the criminal activity associated with their property in order to recover it. Washington law enforcement agencies retain 90 percent of forfeiture proceeds—a considerable incentive to police for profit.
Washington law contains only vague forfeiture reporting requirements: Law enforcement agencies must submit quarterly “records of forfeited property” to the Office of the State Treasurer. This leaves important details—such as whether a case was criminal or civil or what type of property was forfeited—unaccounted for. Further, there is no requirement that even these limited reports be published online, requiring interested parties to file Washington Public Records Act requests in order to understand the scope of forfeiture in the state. The Institute for Justice filed such a request with the state treasurer and obtained records of the 10 percent of all forfeiture proceeds that law enforcement agencies pay to that office. These records enabled IJ to estimate the total value of forfeiture proceeds in Washington—more than $108 million between 2001 and 2013.
State Law Sources
Standard of proof
Preponderance of the evidence. Wash Rev. Code § 69.50.505(5).
Seizing agencies are required to file quarterly reports of forfeited property with the state treasurer. Wash. Rev. Code § 69.50.505(8)(c)–(d).
Washington ranks 37th for federal forfeiture, with over $38 million in Department of Justice equitable sharing proceeds from 2000 to 2013.
State Forfeiture Data
Estimated Forfeiture Proceeds
Average per year
Source: The Institute for Justice filed a Washington Public Records Act request with the Office of the State Treasurer, and obtained calendar-year records of forfeiture proceeds transferred from law enforcement agencies to the treasurer. These transfers represented 10 percent of all forfeiture proceeds in Washington, so IJ multiplied the figures by 10 in order to estimate the total value of forfeiture proceeds in the state.
Federal Equitable Sharing
Washington law enforcement agencies participate in the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program more often than most other states’ agencies, earning 37th place in the rankings. Between 2000 and 2013, Washington law enforcement agencies received over $38 million in equitable sharing proceeds, averaging more than $2.7 million per calendar year. Nearly all of these proceeds resulted from joint task forces and investigations—one of the federal procedures mostly left alone by the 2015 DOJ policy change—suggesting that equitable sharing will remain a problem in the Evergreen State. Washington agencies also received over $25.6 million from the Treasury Department’s equitable sharing program between 2000 and 2013, averaging more than $1.8 million per fiscal year.325,000 a year.