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AGO 1954 No. 301 - August 17, 1954
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Don Eastvold | 1953-1956 | Attorney General of Washington

COUNTIES ‑- SHERIFFS ‑- PROPERTY ‑- AUTOMOBILES.

Automobiles and other personal property supplied by a county to the sheriff is to be treated and dealt with as other county property (overruling Opinion No. 51-53-259).

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                                                                 August 17, 1954

Honorable Hewitt A. Henry
Prosecuting Attorney
Thurston County
Olympia, Washington                                                                                                     Cite as:  AGO 53-55 No. 301

Dear Sir:

            Some time ago you asked us to review a former opinion rendered on March 14, 1952, to the then prosecuting attorney of Thurston County.  This opinion concluded that "Section 1, chapter 254, Laws of 1945, excludes from the requirement of public hearings and bids the disposal and purchase of county personal property in the possession of the sheriff and not within the jurisdiction of the county commissioners."  It was also stated that automobiles supplied to the sheriff, and other personal property for which he is responsible, are not within the jurisdiction of the county commissioners.

            We do not agree with the conclusion stated therein.  It is our opinion that county property furnished to the sheriff for use in performing his official duties remains within the control of the county commissioners and is subject to the provisions of chapter 254, Laws of 1945 (chapter 36.34 RCW).

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            RCW 36.34.020 provides:

            "Whenever the board of county commissioners desires to dispose of any county property except:

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            "(1) When selling to a governmental agency;

            "(2) When personal property to be disposed of is to be traded in upon the purchase of a like article;

            "(3) When the value of the property to be sold is less than two hundred dollars;

            "(4) When the board by a resolution setting forth the facts has declared an emergency to exist;

            "it shall publish notice of its intention so to do once each week during two successive weeks in three different legal newspapers published in the county, or if there are less than three in as many legal newspapers as are published in the county."

            The meaning of this section is so clear and unambiguous that it admits of no interpretation.  We are unable to follow the reasoning of the prior opinion branding this statute as "indeed, an unfortunate, garbled and ambiguous piece of legislation."

            All county property is to be disposed of by the bid procedure indicated in RCW 36.34.020, unless it comes within one of the stated exceptions.  There can be no question that personal property, including automobiles, furnished to the sheriff by the county, constitutes "county property" within the meaning of that term as here used.

            We are not familiar with the policy so strongly relied upon in the cited opinion that "the established custom throughout the state is for sheriffs to turn in their automobiles on purchase of new vehicles when the older cars no longer meet the rigid requirements of law enforcement vehicles."  Custom and usage, even if long established, cannot be allowed to control over the clear and unambiguous provisions of a statute.  We believe that disposition of county property purchased for the use of the sheriff's office, is subject to the same control by the county commissioners as any other county property.

            There is, undoubtedly, property held by a sheriff which is not within the control of the commissioners.  That held in legal custody by reason of an attachment, execution, levy or replevin would fall within this category.  Such custodial  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] property is clearly distinguishable from that used by the sheriff as a county officer in carrying out the functions of his office.  The latter is no different than like property held by any other county officer or employee.  It is all "county property" under the control of the county commissioners.

            We have studied the prior opinion long and carefully and can identify neither logic nor law in support thereof.  This being our view on the question, we find it necessary to overrule the opinion of March 14, 1952, to the prosecuting attorney of Thurston county [[Opinion No. 51-53-259]].  You are so advised.

Very truly yours,

DON EASTVOLD
Attorney General

KEITH S. BERGMAN
Assistant Attorney General

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