OFFICES AND OFFICERS - COUNTY - SHERIFF - DISPOSAL OF STOLEN PROPERTY.
There is no legal procedure for the disposition of stolen tangible property which has come into the county sheriff's possession in the course of his official duties.
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September 28, 1960
Honorable Thurman E. Ward
Goldendale, Washington Cite as: AGO 59-60 No. 146
By letter previously acknowledged, you requested an opinion of this office as to what legal disposition may be made of property which has come into the county sheriff's possession under circumstances described in your letter as follows:
"Our county sheriff has in his possession several hundred dollars worth of personal property consisting mainly of tools and chain saws and which property has been taken from defendants who have admittedly stolen it and who have been tried and convicted in our local superior court. This property has now been held for a number of months and it appears to be impossible to locate the owners thereof and we have also been unable to find just to whom it ever did belong."
It is the conclusion of this office that, under the present state of the law, there is no legal procedure for disposing of such property.
The situation you have presented was formerly covered by § 3, chapter 98, Laws of 1947, which required unclaimed personal property, both tangible and intangible, in the hands of a county officer to be delivered to the county treasurer. However, in 1955 the legislature enacted the Uniform Disposition of Unclaimed Property Act (chapter 385, Laws of 1955; cf. chapter [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] 63.28 RCW) which repealed, inter alia, § 3, supra. Section 8 of the 1955 act (cf. RCW 63.28.140) relates to unclaimed property in the hands of a public officer and provides:
"All intangible personal property held for the owner by any court, public corporation, public authority, or public officer of this state, or a political subdivision thereof, that has remained unclaimed by the owner for more than seven years is presumed abandoned." (Emphasis supplied.)
Section 13 (cf. RCW 63.28.190) then provides for the delivery of all property presumed abandoned under the act to the state tax commission.
Thus, provision has been made for the disposition of unclaimed, intangible personal property in the hands of a county officer. However, the 1955 act remained silent as to the disposition of tangible personal property. Shortly following the enactment of the 1955 act, this office advised the chairman of the state tax commission that his office had neither the right nor the duty to take custody of tangible personal property since the 1955 act pertained solely to intangible personal property. See AGO 55-57 No. 156 [[to Tax Commission on November 4, 1955]], a copy of which is enclosed herewith.
The net result is that the law which formerly provided for the disposition of both tangible and intangible personal property in the hands of county officers has been supplanted by a law which provides only for the disposition of intangible personal property in the hands of county officers.
Parenthetically, it is significant to note that Arizona, which has also adopted the uniform act, enacted § 8 thereof so as to read:
"All personal property, tangible or intangible, held for the owner by any court, public corporation, public authority, or public officer of this state, or a political subdivision thereof, that has remained unclaimed by the owner for more than seven years is presumed abandoned." (Emphasis supplied.) See A.R.S. § 44-378.
Of further significance is the fact that since 1925 the law of this state has provided for the disposition of both tangible and intangible personal property with respect to the police authorities of cities of the first and second class. See chapter 63.32 RCW. The uniform act of 1955 expressly states that its provisions are not applicable to cities or towns. See RCW 63.28.360.
As you might well imagine, the situation confronting your county is by no means unique. By letter dated January 21, 1958, we advised the prosecuting [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] attorney of Walla Walla county that the sheriff thereof was without authority to dispose of certain unclaimed, tangible personal property in his possession. On December 23, 1958, we advised by letter the prosecuting attorney of Clark county to the same effect.
In our thirty-fourth biennial report to the legislature, we attempted to remedy this very problem by pointing out at page 46 thereof the existing void in our statutory law as follows:
"Several local problems involving abandoned personal property, other than intangibles, were created by the enactment of the Uniform Disposition of Unclaimed Property Act (chapter 63.28 RCW).
"Intangibles are governed by the Uniform Act. But as to other personal property, the repeal of former RCW 63.28 [[chapter 63.28 RCW]]repealed legislation governing abandoned or unclaimed property in the hands of police officers of cities of less than 2nd class and county sheriffs. . . ." (Emphasis supplied.)
The legislature responded by enacting in 1959 chapter 63.36 RCW, pertaining to unclaimed personal property in the hands of any city or town authorities. However, no affirmative action was taken to correct the situation with respect to counties. Thus, county authorities remain devoid of authority to dispose of unclaimed, tangible personal property.
In your letter you mention that the county itself could utilize some of this property as such. We must advise you that, until the legislature sees fit to enact legislation in this area, the county may only assert mere possessory rights over such property. It has no authority, express or implied, to dispose of or utilize it for county purposes. As a final word, we call your attention to the provisions of RCW 9.54.130 and 10.79.050, which make an officer in possession of stolen property personally liable therefor.
We trust the foregoing will be of assistance to you.
Very truly yours,
JOHN J. O'CONNELL
Assistant Attorney General