Supreme Court decision reins in civil asset forfeiture, casts shadow on SPD practices

Jarek Tuszyński/Wikipedia Commons

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Feb. 20 that the U.S. Constitution constrains local law enforcement agencies' ability to seize private property allegedly associated with crimes, casting uncertainty on the Spokane Police Department's own asset forfeiture practices.

Asset forfeiture laws — which allow cops to take cash and property from people without pressing charges and forces the owners to prove that they obtained the assets legally to reacquire them — have long been criticized by civil liberties and criminal justice reform advocates as a problematic way for law enforcement agencies to bring in additional revenue at the expense of the public.

In the 9-0 ruling, the Supreme Court justices argued that the Eighth Amendment, which bans "excessive fines" and has been interpreted by the court historically as covering the federal government's use of asset forfeiture, also applies to states.

"Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history for good reason: Such fines undermine other liberties," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg writes in the Feb. 20 ruling. "They can be used, e.g., to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. They can also be employed, not in service of penal purposes, but as a source of revenue."

The impact of the ruling is sweeping: in any future litigation, local-level courts will now have to determine whether a given asset forfeiture is "excessive" when determining its constitutionality.

"What it means is if you're trying to seize someone's home or vehicle related to a crime, the value has to be proportional to the crime," Spokane City Councilman Breean Beggs says. "This was not the case before."

The Spokane Police Department has long utilized state laws to conduct asset forfeiture: between 2012 and 2015, the department raked in around $170,000 annually, according to reporting from the Spokesman-Review. (On a state-wide level, the Institute of Justice estimates that over $100,000,000 has been seized through asset forfeiture by local governments since 2001.)

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl did not respond to the Inlander's requests for comment on the ruling and how it will affect the department's asset forfeiture practices.

In an email to the Inlander, department spokesperson John O'Brien writes that they will have to "look at the Supreme Court ruling" before commenting on its potential impact to their policies.

Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling stems from a 2015 case out of Indiana, where a man, Tyson Timbs, pled guilty to selling $225 worth of heroin to undercover cops. State officials seized his $42,000 Land Rover SUV, alleging that he used it for transporting heroin. (In the Feb. 20 ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg notes that Timbs spent roughly four times more on his car than the "the maximum $10,000 monetary fine" that the court could levy against him for his drug conviction.) The case eventually found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court after the Indiana state Supreme Court ruled against Timbs.

"Today's unanimous decision puts judges on notice that they have this power to intervene when police and prosecutors try and take too much from a person," Wesley Hottot, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, tells the Inlander. "We now know that there is a federal constitutional backstop against that type of forfeiture."

In Washington, state law only requires local governments to present evidence that property was associated with a crime in order to seize it, according to the Institute of Justice. In contrast, owners of said property bear the burden of demonstrating their innocence in order to recover their assets. (The institute gave Washington a "D-" grade for its asset forfeiture laws.)

Washington is the only state on the West Coast that allows asset forfeiture before a person has been convicted, according to Hottot.

"We should not be the only state on the West Coast that allows people to lose their property without a criminal conviction," he says.

So far, recent attempts by state lawmakers to change the forfeiture statute have not been successful.

Locally, the Spokane City Council passed an ordinance in 2017 requiring that all Police Department expenditures with revenue obtained from asset forfeiture be approved by the legislative body. 

"The American electorate needs to wake up to the fact that civil forfeiture is one of the dirty secrets of the criminal justice system," Hottot says.

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About The Author

Josh Kelety

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington. Message him through Signal @ (360) 301-3490.