Asset Forfeiture FAQ
Law Office of Shira J. Stefanik
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Here are some general questions and answers about Asset Forfeiture in Washington State.
Forfeiture is when the government tries to take your property because they believe it is the proceeds of a crime. In Washington State forfeiture proceedings are considered a civil matter totally independent of a criminal matter, and you are not entitled to a free lawyer to help you defend your property rights. All personal property forfeitures are initiated by a seizing agency who has the authority to confiscate your property without a warrant. Usually, it’s traditional law enforcement like the County Sheriff or the City Police, but can also be a Fish and Wildlife officer, a Liquor and Cannabis Board officer, or the Postal Inspector. Any agency that has been granted the power to seize by the legislature can seize your property.
Some of the most common ways people face civil asset forfeiture proceedings are for:
- a violation of Uniform Controlled Substance Act RCW 69.50.505
- money laundering RCW 9A.83.030
- property Involved in a Felony RCW 10.105.010
- firearm violations RCW 9.41.098
- violating fish and wildlife laws RCW 77.15.070
- federal civil violations under 18 U.S. Code § 981
- Alcohol violators RCW 10.105.010
Maybe law enforcement seized your property with the intention of forfeiting it, or maybe law enforcement seized your car to get a search warrant and search for evidence of the crime they are investigating. If law enforcement is trying to forfeit your property, they have to provide you with official notice. The cops might show up at your house to serve you with notice, and sometimes they leave your forfeiture notice posted. The cops might also call you and ask you to come pick up paperwork; this could be your notice as well. (Receiving a call from the cops can be unnerving, so it is okay to ask to speak to a lawyer to clarify what the cops’ intentions are, and to emphasize that you will not be making statements.)
Your forfeiture notice might come in the mail, so check your mail and accept certified mail; this is probably your notice. If you get notice in the mail, make sure you keep the postmarked envelope! Sometimes the cops miss a deadline for providing you notice, and your postmark could prove this.
There are different deadlines for different types of forfeiture. Read your forfeiture notice carefully, the notice states the amount of time you have before you must respond by filing your claim. If you fail to respond by the date on the notice of forfeiture, you may lose your property forever, even if you are innocent.
Personal property is money, bank accounts, cars, jewelry, electronics, and tangible things. This could take years because a criminal charge could be filed under the same set of facts. Usually, you will not get your personal property back any time soon after you file your claim.
When you are fighting a real property forfeiture, you can still live in your house while your case is pending. You won’t be able to sell the property because the government has a lien on it, but the house will often still be in your possession, unlike the case with personal property.
It depends, because each case is unique. Generally we can withdraw your forfeiture claim later on, or we might be able to negotiate a settlement where you get some of your personal property back, or keep some equity in your home. We don’t know the strength of the government’s case until we look at the facts, which may reveal errors the government made, like a bad warrant, affirmative defenses, or other mistakes, which could mean the return of your property.
Not likely, because the civil asset forfeiture is a separate proceeding from the potential criminal charges. Sometimes a deal can be negotiated to resolve a criminal case or investigation and the corresponding asset forfeiture, but do not assume that failing to claim your property in a forfeiture will mean you won’t face criminal charges.
There are possible constitutional protections to raise if the property punishment seems too excessive for the crime. It is common for the government to seize everything they can without tracing the source of the property, so it is important to consult with a forfeiture lawyer as soon as possible.
You might have an innocent ownership claim, which means you cannot have your property seized based on the actions of others of which you had no knowledge. But you should file the claim before you raise the defense.
You can, but this is NOT advisable, because there are rules that you have to follow, and there are rules that the government has to follow. You might harm your claim if you don’t know how to navigate these rules or identify when the government makes a mistake. We have had to tell people that we could have helped them earlier in the case, but errors they made when they handled their case themselves have subsequently ruined their claim. It is in your best interest to contact a lawyer as soon as possible after your property was taken.
Any proof you have that the property is from a legal, legitimate source is very helpful in fighting your case, and we will need to review those records as early as possible in order to give you the best chance of winning your claim.
It depends. Sometimes the Seizing agency will offer to settle your claim before trial. Part of the settlement usually includes a clause that says each side is responsible to pay their own lawyer. If you substantively prevail at trial, the government will have to pay for your lawyer fees.
Usually it is worth trying to get your property back by filing your claim. When the government takes your property, they give you a notice that only lists the property they seized from you and the law they think you violated. Filing a forfeiture claim forces the government to explain why they think you violated the law.
You can always contact us for a free consultation before your claim is due and we can assess your case and provide you options.