Patrons of prostitutes could lose their vehicles

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Rep. Dick Muri, R-28

Questions arose Friday on whether an anti-prostitution bill is a crime deterrent, a potential punishment for an innocent person, or both.

The Washington House Public Safety Committee held a hearing on a bill by Rep. Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, that would allow law enforcement agencies to confiscate the car, money or other property that a person uses in patronizing a prostitute. Under the bill, forfeiture could happen prior to a conviction. However, there is a procedure in which the owner of a vehicle or other seized personal property can try to get those items back if he was not involved with the solicitation of sex.

Muri said his bill properly puts the focus on the buyer of sex acts. "This flips the narrative on the sex trade. ... This reinforces the principle that the buyer of sex is who keeps the trade alive," Muri said.

Tim Heffer, executive director of the Justice and Mercy Foundation, an Olympia-based anti-human trafficking organization with a religious orientation, said, "If you're trafficking in people, you should forfeit your possessions used to possess another." Heffer said the provisions of Muri's bill would add "real fear to violators who are already breaking the law."

"It is not a business transaction. ...  I was violated, kidnapped, beaten and held against my will as a minor," said sex-trafficking victim Teri Vasquez of Washington Engage, another Olympia-based anti-human trafficking organization.

Some people at the hearing had problems with the bill in its current form.

"A citizen's due process is completely violated by civil forfeiture," argued Chelsea Moore, a University of Washington PhD candidate who is studying the sex trade.

Solalove, who provided only the single name, protested the bill on behalf of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a national network with a Seattle chapter. She said that the bill fails to differentiate between adult-to-adult sexual transactions and child exploitation. She said, "There's a huge difference between consenting adults paying for sex and a predator hiring a 13-year-old to prey on the child." A House staff analysis says the bill's confiscation provisions would be added to existing law governing the use of vehicles and personal property during crimes of sexual exploitation of minors.

Ramona Brandes, representing the Washington Defenders Association, argued that the forfeiture penalty is out of proportion to the misdemeanor of patronizing a prostitute. That crime is currently punishable by fines of up to $1,500, $2,500 or $5,000 — depending on the number of previous convictions  -- plus a jail term of up to 90 days. She also questioned seizing someone's property prior to a conviction. Brandes said legislators must look more carefully at what happens when the buyer of sex is using a vehicle owned by someone else, or when a vehicle is the joint property of a husband and wife.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8