SPOKANE, Wash. — The Spokane City Council will vote at its Sept. 26 legislative meeting on an ordinance that would give it more control over how the city spends funds from its Civil Property Forfeiture Account going forward.
Civil asset forfeiture is a process in which police seize property from people suspected of crimes, even if the owners are not necessarily charged with wrongdoing.
Historically, forfeiture funds have been used by the Spokane Police Department (SPD) to pay confidential informants and for controlled drug purchases as counter-drug trafficking strategies.
Ordinance C36271 would amend the Spokane Municipal Code (SMC) would require the city to spend an equal amount of the fund for these purposes as it does for drug prevention programs for at-risk youth.
The ordinance, sponsored by City Council Speaker Breean Beggs, says “Police youth programs are proven methods of expanding and improving law enforcement activities to reduce crimes targeted by statutes.” of confiscation above, in particular youth drug diversion, prevention and mitigation strategies”.
At the August 22 city council legislative meeting, SPD Leader Craig Meidl expressed concerns about a similar law, Order C36193, which would amend the 2022 budget to increase appropriations for the Forfeitures and Contributions Fund of $175,000.
Of the increase, $40,000 would be used for more controlled purchases, $125,000 would be used for nonprofits providing drug prevention services to at-risk youth, and $10,000 would be used for training.
“If we go down this path now, with all the requests for training and equipment, even without the intervention of young people, we would exhaust this fund with all the requests we receive,” Meidl said.
Meidl also argued that the city may not have the authority to spend the forfeiture funds on the program because Washington State seizure and confiscation law says that “Forfeited property and net proceeds not to be returned to the State shall be retained by the seizing law enforcement agency exclusively for the expansion and improvement of law enforcement activities related to controlled substances”.
Beggs argued that spending on drug interventions for at-risk youth was linked to improved law enforcement related to controlled substance activity.
Unlike Order C36193, Order C36271 would amend the SMC to change how decisions are made on account spending going forward. In order to prevent the reserve from running out, this would block further spending of the confiscated funds if the reserve of those funds fell below $250,000.
Ordinance C36721 also aims to put some teeth into an ordinance passed in 2017 that required the SPD to submit quarterly reports on how it spends forfeiture funds to the city council. Several city council members have expressed concern that the department has not provided these reports. If the bill passes, it will prevent the department from spending funds until it provides this report.
The act would also amend the SMC to give the council the power to request the spending of forfeited funds in the annual budget process for any purpose the SPD leader has previously requested, even if the leader is not currently requesting funding for that purpose.
The ethics of civilian property forfeiture have come under fire from civil rights groups nationwide in recent years following allegations that some police departments abuse the system.
Order C36271 addresses these concerns in Spokane, noting that “in 2014, the Spokane Police Department implemented comprehensive policies and ethical standards with respect to seizing property…and the Spokane Police Department Spokane is subject to annual audits by the Washington State Auditor’s Office regarding the receipt and use of proceeds from such seizures.