Washington State has some of the worst civil drug forfeiture laws in the country. The Government can take property it believes was part of a drug transaction. Once the government takes your property, you have the burden of proving that the property was legal acquired and unrelated to a drug crime. That’s right, you have to prove that you didn’t break the law. If you don’t prove your innocence, then you don’t get your property back.
This blog will discuss forfeitures and defenses. I’ll lay out the law by giving some examples of cases our firm is currently fighting.
Washington State Civil Drug Forfeiture Law
RCW 69.50.505 governs civil drug forfeitures. Under this law, State police agencies can seize money earned by selling drugs, as well as money intended to be used to engage in a drug transaction. The police then get to keep the majority of the money they take. Cops can also take cars and other property used to commit a crime or that makes it easier to commit a crime.
We currently represent a gentleman who was visiting a house when police arrived to search for a marijuana grow operation. Our middle aged client had a clean criminal history, and hadn’t broken any laws when he was arrested. The local police department still took his $900 claiming that it was related to the alleged marijuana grow. They also seized his phone and personal belongings.
Under RCW 69.50.505, the government may seize “proceeds” of drug dealing. The Police in the above case simply believed that since the older guy was around people who broke the law, the money he had in his pocket must have come from drug dealing. We now have the burden of proving that our client earned the money before he ever came to visit Washington State. That’s right, we have to prove that the police theft from our client was wrong. Sadly, this happens every single day as police seek to take as much money and property as possible. After all, they directly benefit from these seizures when they keep the cash and sell the items that they’ve taken.
Removing Civil Drug Forfeitures To District Court
You have to properly move a civil drug forfeiture to District Court, or the same police agency that originally took your money will decide whether police can keep your money. Wrap your head around that. The police take property and then decide whether they did it properly. Guess how often they admit that they were wrong. That’s right, cops second guessing themselves is rarer than the Mariners in a playoff game. Forfeiture victims who want to avoid this additional injustice need to get their cases away from the police and into a court with a judge.
The removal is relatively easy with a Petition to Remove and a Summons and Complaint that identifies the wrongfully forfeited property. Of course, you’ll also have to pay the Court’s filing fee and serve the police, and in our case the city mayor. You must file and serve your pleadings within 45 days of challenging the forfeiture.
Defenses to Civil Drug Forfeiture
Wining a civil drug forfeiture case is tough, but possible. Forfeiture attorneys generally attack these thefts both procedurally and factually. Procedurally, the rules are very strict, and even minor errors by police will result in the return of property.
Police must initially prove that seized money or property was illegally acquired, or would be used to commit a crime. This can be difficult for police to show. If cops fail, then they must return the seized property.
Unfortunately, if police make the initial showing of probable cause to believe the seized property is related to a crime, then the forfeiture victim has to show enough facts to prove that the property was legally obtained and wasn’t going to be used in a crime.
Police caught a recent client with a bunch of money while visiting friends here in Washington. Local police couldn’t believe the the client could have tens of thousands of dollars unless they were committing crimes. Fortunately, our client proved that the money was legal. We convinced a judge that simply having a lot of cash doesn’t make someone a criminal.
Police agencies can forfeit any type of property from cash to real estate. We most often see officers and agent seize cash, cars, trucks, boat’s, planes, motorcycles, and recreational vehicles. Less common are civil drug forfeitures of houses and real estate. A drug task force recently seized several homes and buildings following marijuana raids. At least one of the homeowners was unaware of the illegal activities going on in his house. That is a defense to forfeiture and he should get his house back.