It all comes down to semantics

The state Supreme Court has issued a common sense 5-4 decision regarding the forfeiture of cars, houses and other property used in illegal drug dealing. The court, in essence, said the property is not subject to drug forfeiture laws if the owner lacks actual knowledge of the illegal activity.

That seems fair. Why should parents have to give up their vehicles if they don’t know their kids are using them to run drugs?

That, in a nutshell, was the case before the state’s nine top justices.

Between June 10, 2005, and Sept. 9, 2005, Thomas Roos was found by police four times to be either unconscious in or operating a vehicle that contained, among other things, various controlled substances and large sums of cash.

Each time the police arrested and charged Roos. On one occasion, the Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force seized a 2004 Nissan Sentra and in a separate case, seized a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle. The Nissan was owned by Roos’ father, Alan; the Chevrolet title was in the name of his mother, Stephne.

On both occasions the parents filed claims for return of the vehicles, asserting they were subject to the “innocent owner” exception in the state’s vehicle forfeiture law. The parents said while they had given their son permission to use the cars on a temporary basis, they had no actual knowledge that he was using them for illegal purposes. They testified that their son was leading a secret life, hiding his illegal activities from them by, among other things, erasing voice messages and diverting mail.

In Washington state, forfeiture is determined in civil rather than criminal administrative proceedings.

A hearing examiner listened to the evidence and said the parents had reason to know what their son was up to and therefore could not claim “innocent owner” status.

The hearing examiner ordered the vehicles forfeited to law enforcement authorities.

The parents appealed the decision and lost in both Snohomish County Superior Court and in the state Court of Appeals. They took their case to the state Supreme Court and found a sympathetic ear with Justices Charles Johnson, Richard B. Sanders, Tom Chambers, Debra L. Stephens and Chief Justice Gerry L. Alexander.

The court majority said the case came down to the definition of “knowledge.” Did “knowledge” mean objective knowledge as in “had reason to know,” or did “knowledge” mean “actual knowledge?”

In other words did the parents actually know their son was using their cars to sell drugs or did they only have reason to believe he was using their vehicles for illegal purposes?

The five justices said the parents had no “actual knowledge” what their son was up to.

“Perhaps a person should know many things, but often the opposite could be true, like here: The parents could have just as easily presumed their son’s criminal activities would stop after the first arrest just as they could have suspected their son’s criminal activities would continue,” Johnson wrote for the majority. “... We do not have sufficient objective facts here to determine the subjective knowledge of Alan and Stephne during the relevant time period of Thomas’ criminal activity involving his parents’ vehicles. As such, we cannot agree with the trial court and the Court of Appeals that Thomas’ parents had actual knowledge but simply stuck their heads in the sand.”

The justices reversed the lower courts and allowed the parents to take possession of their vehicles.

The remaining four justices would have allowed the parents to keep one of their two vehicles, saying they did not know their son was peddling drugs the first time, but should have known before his second arrest in a family vehicle.

It seems to us the court majority has the better argument here.

Maybe the parents should have known, but they didn’t have actual knowledge. To punish them for his illegal activities is wrong.

State lawmakers could clarify this murky issue by amending the law and providing a firm definition of “knowledge.”