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Originally published February 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 23, 2009 at 12:57 AM

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Looking for a prostitute? Bill would allow police to seize your car

The Legislature is debating bills that would allow police to impound the cars of people arrested on prostitution-related charges.

Seattle Times staff reporter

OLYMPIA — Communities across the state may soon see new signs popping up along busy highways and streets — a warning that the car of anyone arrested on prostitution-related charges could be seized by police.

The state Legislature is debating yet another proposal that would allow police to impound vehicles in prostitution cases. A bill last year called for seizing such cars and selling them to help fund police operations. It failed in the House.

This year, two identical bills in the House and Senate call for impounding the cars of people arrested in connection with soliciting, patronizing or promoting prostitution within neighborhoods designated as prostitution-heavy zones. Cities would map out these zones and post warning signs before the impoundments could begin.

The cars, however, would be returned to their owners once towing and impound fees were paid. Those acquitted of the charges would get their fees refunded.

Under current law, people with a previous conviction for patronizing prostitution or commercial sexual abuse of a minor could see their vehicles impounded if arrested in a new prostitution-related crime.

The proposed law would expand the crimes that would qualify for a vehicle impound. It also would add a provision stating that cars of suspects with no previous conviction could be impounded in the event of arrests within a designated prostitution zone.

"Our vision, the [police] chiefs' in this area, is to have a parking lot full of [impounded] cars that we can take a picture of to tell people, 'Don't come here. This is not OK here,' " said Kent Police Chief Steve Strachan.

Strachan, who testified in support of the Senate bill on Friday, said Kent has long had a problem with prostitution along Pacific Highway South. He said that if the bill passes, the department would work closely with community groups to create signs intended to deter prostitution.

"We want to be direct without creating negativity in the neighborhood," he said. "People who live along the highway deserve better."

Seattle police say they arrest about 200 people each year on suspicion of soliciting prostitution. Seattle police, the King County Sheriff's Office and Spokane police support the vehicle-impound proposal.

Both bills call for collecting a $500 fee from those arrested. The money would go into a state account that helps prostitutes get treatment and other services they need.

That fee also would be refunded to those acquitted or in cases when charges were dropped.

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Cities across the country have enacted laws allowing police to impound vehicles tied to prostitution. The American Civil Liberties Union has fought such measures on constitutional grounds, and it opposed the Senate bill on Friday.

The Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has opposed automobile-forfeiture provisions, but it isn't taking a position on the current legislation in Olympia, said Executive Director Teresa Mathis.

The House bill, HB 1362, has passed through the Judiciary Committee. The Senate bill, SB 5934, was heard Friday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Jennifer Sullivan: 360-236-8267 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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