Watson v. State

Decision Date18 April 2017
Docket NumberNo. 34025-2-III,34025-2-III
PartiesJASON L. WATSON, Appellant, v. STATE OF WASHINGTON, Defendant, and CITY OF SPOKANE, Respondent.
CourtWashington Court of Appeals

FEARING, C.J.Jason Watson asks this court to rule that the City of Spokane violated his due process rights when the City's hearing examiner summarily dismissed his challenge to the forfeiture of $13,000 in cash seized from Watson's safe after he admitted the cash resulted from delivering a controlled substance and after he signed a stipulation of forfeiture. Watson also challenges the hearing examiner's subject matter jurisdiction to render a decision. We hold that the hearing examiner possessed jurisdiction. Because Watson presented no evidence challenging the validity of the stipulation in opposition to the City's motion to dismiss, we affirm the dismissal of his challenge to the forfeiture.


On November 13, 2014, Spokane police officers arrested Jason Watson for delivery of a controlled substance. Following Watson's transport to police headquarters and the provision of Miranda warnings, Watson spoke to the police. Watson informed law enforcement officers that his home's safe sheltered $13,000 in cash. He added that some, but not all, of the cash derived from drug sales. On November 13, Spokane police executed a search warrant on Watson's home and seized the currency.

Still on November 13, 2014, the Spokane Police Department delivered to Jason Watson a narcotics notice of seizure and intended forfeiture. Watson signed the notice of seizure to acknowledge his receipt. The notice informed Watson of the right to challenge the forfeiture of his cash. The notice read:

If you would like to make a claim because this property belongs to you and/or you are an interested party, you MUST, within forty-five days of the service of this notice, notify the Spokane Police Department in writing of your claim of ownership or right to possession to the item(s) seized. Send your written claim (certified mail preferred) to: Forfeiture Claim, SPO Civil Enforcement Unit, 1100 West Mallon, Spokane, WA 99260. In your letter please identify the property you are claiming and whether you wish to request a copy of the police report documenting the seizure of the property. You will then receive notice of a hearing date.

Clerk's Papers (CP) at 15 (underlining omitted).

Contemporaneously with signing the notice of seizure, Jason Watson signed a stipulation and release, which declared:

Whereas the Spokane Police Department and the below named owner/claimant desire that settlement be had. [sic] It is hereby agreed to and stipulated by the parties that the property listed on the seizure and forfeiture letter dated November 13th, 2014 (Report #14-802744) shall be disposed of as follows:
The following item will be forfeited to the City of Spokane; Items #13, #14 totaling $13,000.00 in US Currency.

CP at 16.


On November 18, 2014, Jason Watson, through legal counsel, sent a letter to the city providing notice of a claim of ownership to the $13,000. In turn, on January 15, 2015, the City of Spokane hearing examiner sent a forfeiture hearing notice to Watson and the City, which notice scheduled a hearing on the merits for February 12, 2015.

On February 11, 2015, Jason Watson, through counsel, filed a motion to defer the February 12 hearing due to a lack of discovery. The City initially objected. On the day of the hearing, the City rescinded its objection to the motion to defer and filed a motion for summary dismissal on the basis of the stipulation and release signed by Watson. The City attached to its motion the stipulation signed by Jason Watson and the police reportthat substantiated the seizure of the $13,000. The hearing examiner entertained the motion and took the motion to dismiss under advisement. Watson thereafter filed no affidavit or brief opposing the motion to dismiss. In a written order of February 19, 2015, the hearing examiner dismissed, pursuant to RCW 34.05.416, Watson's claim by finding that Watson forfeited the money pursuant to his stipulation. The hearing examiner noted that Watson provided no genuine defense to the validity of the stipulation and that a live hearing was not needed.

On March 20, 2015, Jason Watson petitioned the superior court for review. The superior court found the hearing examiner improperly dismissed Watson's claim of ownership because the forfeiture hearing had commenced. According to the superior court, the hearing examiner could not summarily dismiss the challenge once the merits hearing commenced. The court remanded to the hearing examiner for further proceedings.

The City of Spokane moved again to dismiss Jason Watson's challenge to the forfeiture because of the stipulation signed by Watson. Watson again supplied no affidavit presenting a factual basis for his signature on the stipulation being invalid. In an order dated July 31, 2015, the hearing examiner again dismissed Watson's claim. The examiner dismissed the challenge the second time before commencing a forfeiturehearing.

Jason Watson appealed the second dismissal of his challenge to the superior court. The superior court affirmed the hearing examiner.


On appeal to the Court of Appeals, Jason Watson argues that the City of Spokane hearing examiner lacked subject matter jurisdiction to conduct a hearing regarding the forfeiture of his $13,000 in cash. Watson also contends that the City of Spokane violated his right to due process by dismissing his claim without a hearing to determine if his stipulation to the forfeiture was made knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. We address these arguments in such order.

Hearing Examiner Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Jason Watson argues that the City hearing examiner lacked subject matter jurisdiction over his claim for return of the seized cash because the legislature solely vested jurisdiction of the claim with the superior court. We disagree.

In partial response to Jason Watson's argument, the City of Spokane notes that Watson failed to raise, before the hearing examiner and the superior court, that the examiner lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Spokane cites our general rule that precludes appellate review of issues not raised below. RAP 2.5(a). Nevertheless, contrary toSpokane's argument, a party may raise subject matter jurisdiction for the first time before this court. We also observe that Jason Watson argued in support of its second appeal to the superior court that the hearing examiner lacked subject matter jurisdiction.

A party may challenge a court's subject matter jurisdiction at any time. Boeing Co. v. Sierracin Corp., 108 Wn.2d 38, 49, 738 P.2d 665 (1987); State v. Brennan, 76 Wn. App. 347, 349 n.4, 884 P.2d 1343 (1994). Moreover, a judgment rendered by a court lacking jurisdiction is void ab initio and is legally no judgment at all. Wesley v. Schneckloth, 55 Wn.2d 90, 93-94, 346 P.2d 658 (1959). A court holds subject matter jurisdiction when it has authority to adjudicate the type of controversy involved in the action. In re Marriage of McDermott, 175 Wn. App. 467, 480-81, 307 P.3d 717 (2013).

Under the state constitution, "[t]he judicial power of the state shall be vested in the supreme court, superior courts, justices of the peace, and such inferior courts as the legislature may provide." WASH. CONST. art. IV, § 1. In turn, WASH. CONST. art. IV, § 6 states:

. . . . The superior court shall have original jurisdiction . . . in all other cases in which the demand or the value of the property in controversy amounts to three thousand dollars. . . . The superior court shall also have original jurisdiction in all cases and of all proceedings in which jurisdiction shall not have been by law vested exclusively in some other court.

Based on Washington Constitution article IV, section 6, Jason Watson contends thesuperior court held original and exclusive subject matter jurisdiction to determine his challenge to the forfeiture of the cash.

RCW 69.50.505 governs the seizure and forfeiture of property as a result of criminal activity and affords a claimant of the property a hearing before a hearing examiner. The lengthy statute declares, in part:

(1) The following are subject to seizure and forfeiture and no property right exists in them:
. . . .
(g) All moneys . . . acquired in whole or in part with proceeds traceable to an exchange or series of exchanges in violation of this chapter [RCW 69.50, the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, chapter 69.50 RCW]. . . .
. . . .
(2) . . . Seizure of personal property without process may be made if:
(a) The seizure is incident to an arrest or a search under a search warrant. . . .
(3) In the event of seizure pursuant to subsection (2) of this section, proceedings for forfeiture shall be deemed commenced by the seizure. The law enforcement agency under whose authority the seizure was made shall cause notice to be served within fifteen days following the seizure on the owner of the property seized. . . .
. . . .
(5) If any person notifies the seizing law enforcement agency in writing of the person's claim of ownership . . . within forty-five days of the service of notice from the seizing agency in the case of personal property . . . , the person or persons shall be afforded a reasonable opportunity to be heard as to the claim or right. . . . The hearing shall be before the chief law enforcement officer of the seizing agency or the chief law enforcement officer's designee . . . , except that any person asserting a claim or right may remove the matter to a court of competent jurisdiction. . . . A hearingbefore the seizing agency and any appeal therefrom shall be under Title 34 RCW [the Administrative Procedure Act, chapter 34.05 RCW].

Jason Watson does not argue that the city of Spokane chief of police failed to designate the hearing examiner to conduct a hearing. Watson never sought to remove his forfeiture challenge to the district or superior...

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