New report finds areas of concern with police use of civil asset forfeiture in Washington

Apr 11, 2024

Law enforcement officers can seize property they believe has been involved in or is the proceeds of a crime through a legal tool called civil asset forfeiture. The process does not require an arrest, charge or criminal conviction of the property’s owner. 

In a new report, the first of its kind in the state, the Office of the Washington State Auditor described how civil asset forfeiture works, based on an analysis of data and practices at eight law enforcement agencies.  

“This independent analysis offers a clearer picture of a little-understood aspect of our criminal justice system,” said State Auditor Pat McCarthy. “Our audit shows that greater transparency regarding civil asset forfeiture can help Washington continue to discourage wrongdoing by seizing the material elements of crime while also protecting every person’s right to due process.” 

The performance audit published today found several notable aspects of civil asset forfeiture in Washington. 

Law enforcement agencies followed requirements of state law. The eight audited agencies, including police departments, sheriff’s offices, a port police agency and a drug task force, all complied with state laws governing civil asset forfeiture.  

Forfeiture typically involved low-value property. The tool was originally intended to disrupt large-scale drug trafficking through the seizure of high-value equipment like cars and aircraft. Most of the property forfeitures reviewed, however, were worth $2,000 or less. Nearly three-quarters of the property seized was cash.  

Forfeiture disproportionately affected some racial and ethnic groups. Auditors analyzed available data and found forfeiture did not match the demographic makeup of police agencies’ jurisdictions. For five agencies, forfeiture was used more often in cases involving people who were Black, Hispanic, or Asian and Pacific Islander, while two other agencies used forfeiture more often in cases involving white people.  

The law gives police broad authority but few protections to property owners. In most cases, police agencies themselves determine whether their property seizures are appropriate. The audit also found that most people involved in a forfeiture with audited agencies were not convicted of a related crime.  

Police agencies could do more to help people receive notice and understand how to reclaim property. The audit recommends the eight audited agencies take more steps to ensure people whose property is forfeited understand the process and their rights. These steps could include communicating in plain language, in languages other than English, and confirming delivery of legal notices. 

The audit also recommends that the Legislature form a task force to review different aspects of civil asset forfeiture, including requiring police agencies to report more data on their forfeiture activity. 

A three-page summary of the report can be found on the State Auditor’s Office website here: three-page audit summary.

The full report, including responses from the audited police agencies, can be found here: Civil Asset Forfeiture.

The audited police agencies were Centralia Police Department, Port of Seattle Police Department, Seattle Police Department, Yakima Police Department, Grant County Sheriff ’s Office, Spokane County Sheriff ’s Office, Washington State Patrol and Grays Harbor County Drug Task Force.

Media questions: Assistant Director of Communications Adam Wilson,, 564-999-0799