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AGO 1991 No. 10 - March 13, 1991
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Ken Eikenberry | 1981-1992 | Attorney General of Washington

COUNTIES ‑- SHERIFF ‑- CORONER ‑- MOTOR VEHICLES ‑- USE OF MOTOR VEHICLES FORFEITED BY SHERIFF

RCW 69.50.505(f)(1) provides that forfeited property may be retained for use by a law enforcement agency of the state.  A coroner does not act as a law enforcement agency of the state.  Therefore, a coroner is not entitled to use a motor vehicle forfeited pursuant to RCW 69.50.505(f)(1).

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                                                                  March 13, 1991

The Honorable Andrew K. Miller
Benton County Prosecuting Attorney
Benton County Justice Center
7320 West Quinault
Kennewick, Washington 99336

                                                                                                                 Cite as:  AGO 1991 No. 10

Dear Mr. Miller:

            By letter previously acknowledged you have asked for our opinion on a question which we paraphrase as follows:

            Can a motor vehicle forfeited by the county sheriff pursuant to chapter 69.50 RCW be retained for use in connection with the discharge of the duties of the county coroner?

We answer your question in the negative for the reasons set forth in the following analysis.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            Your question focuses upon RCW 69.50.505(f)(1) which reads:

            (f) When property is forfeited under this chapter the board or seizing law enforcement agency may:

            (1) Retain it for official use or upon application by any law enforcement agency of this state release such property to such agency for the exclusive use of enforcing the provisions of this chapter;
           . . . .
             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

This statute authorized two alternative actions by the "seizing law enforcement agency" which, as you have indicated in this instance, is the Benton County Sheriff.  The sheriff may either retain the forfeited motor vehicle "for official use", or, if requested by "any law enforcement agency of this state", release the forfeited motor vehicle subject to the condition that it be devoted to the "exclusive use of enforcing the provisions of this chapter".  As we understand it, your question relates to the first statutory alternative.  While it is clear that a coroner does not normally have law enforcement duties, the contingency that such duties might on occasion be thrust upon the coroner by RCW 36.24.010 prompts your question.1/

            RCW 36.24.010 provides:

            The coroner shall perform the duties of the sheriff in all cases where the sheriff is interested or otherwise incapacitated from serving; and whenever the coroner acts as sheriff he shall possess the powers and perform all the duties of sheriff, and shall be liable on his official bond in like manner as the sheriff would be, and shall be entitled to the same fees as are allowed by law to the sheriff for similar services:  Provided, That nothing herein contained shall prevent the court from appointing a suitable person to discharge such duties, as provided by RCW 36.28.090.

(Emphasis added).  Even though the coroner shall perform all duties of the sheriff when the sheriff is "interested or otherwise incapacitated from serving", the predecessor statute to RCW 36.28.090 has been interpreted to authorize a court to appoint a suitable person to discharge such law enforcement duties.  See Russell and Co. v. Millett, 20 Wash. 212, 214-15, 55 P. 44 (1898).  Under these statutes, not only the coroner, but "any suitable person" may be designated to perform a sheriff's duties on those occasions when interest or incapacity occurs.  Thus, the potential for a coroner assuming law enforcement responsibilities pursuant to RCW 36.24.010 is actually remote.

            In addressing your question, we begin with the fundamental proposition that a statute is to be interpreted in such a way as to ascertain and give effect to the intent and purpose of the legislation as expressed by the act as a whole, and that the language of the statute itself is the first place to look for  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] that legislative intent and purpose.  Condit v. Lewis Refrigeration Co., 101 Wn.2d 106, 110, 676 P.2d 466 (1984).  The basic goal of statutory construction is to carry out the intent of the Legislature.  Dominick v. Christensen, 87 Wn.2d 25, 548 P.2d 541 (1976).  With that principle in mind, we believe that the answer to your question is to be found in the language of RCW 69.50.505(f), which expressly states that a seizing law enforcement agency may retain a forfeited automobile only for "official use".  That provision can only be given meaning by restricting it to "official use" of the "seizing law enforcement agency".  The coroner is undoubtedly not a "seizing law enforcement agency" and, except under the very limited circumstances and contingencies described in RCW 36.24.010, does not possess general powers of law enforcement.2/

             The answer, then, naturally follows from the language used in RCW 69.50.505(f)(1).  In other words, the Benton County Sheriff is the "seizing law enforcement agency" if the Benton County Sheriff seizes a motor vehicle which is thereafter forfeited.  The Benton County Sheriff may retain it for its official use.  In the event that another law enforcement agency of the state requests the use of forfeited property, it must make application to the Benton County Sheriff and demonstrate that the forfeited motor vehicle would be devoted exclusively to the purpose of enforcing the provisions of chapter 69.50 RCW.  The county coroner is not a part of the sheriff's office or otherwise subject to the sheriff's supervision.  Option one afforded under the statute for use of a forfeited automobile is, thus, not available.  Neither may the coroner be properly characterized as a law enforcement agency.  Thus, the second statutory option is likewise unavailable to authorize the coroner's use of a forfeited motor vehicle.

            To summarize, it is our opinion that the limited and contingent circumstances under which a coroner may perform the duties of sheriff as described by RCW 36.24.010, does not thereby classify the coroner as a law enforcement agency entitled to use  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] a motor vehicle forfeited pursuant to RCW 69.50.505(f)(1).  Neither is the coroner a part of the county sheriff's office.  Therefore, your question must be answered in the negative.

            We hope this opinion will be of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

KENNETH O. EIKENBERRY
Attorney General

J. LAWRENCE CONIFF
Senior Counsel
Assistant Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/This office has previously opined that the offices of county coroner and deputy county sheriff (full-time) are incompatible.  See 52 AGO 331 (1952).
2/The coroner's jurisdiction extends to bodies of deceased persons who come to their death under various conditions and the authority to authorize or conduct an autopsy or post mortem under certain circumstances.  See RCW 68.50.010 and 68.50.100.  Additionally, the coroner is given authority to conduct an inquest and inquire into the cause of death.  See RCW 36.24.020.  These statutes do not, however, provide authority for a coroner to act in a law enforcement capacity akin to that of a sheriff.

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