Eleven years ago, James Metcalf strangled Denise McCormick and dumped her body on the shore of Long Lake. He’s been in prison since his conviction, but the Chevrolet van he used to give his victim a ride is still sitting in a dusty warehouse in East Central Spokane.
Metcalf’s van is one of 84 vehicles held inside the Spokane Police Department’s evidence storage, a facility built to hold 54 vehicles. Another 37 cars sit outside in a lot designed to hold 20.
It’s overcrowded in part because the department’s year-old civil enforcement unit has been seizing more vehicles under Washington’s asset forfeiture law, evidence supervisor Kevin Berry said. That unit focuses on seizing property and assets used in the commission of crimes. But the length of time vehicles have to be kept following a crime also contributes, he said. Seized vehicles make up about 40 percent of cars sitting in the warehouse; the rest are held as evidence in criminal cases.
Vehicles in homicide cases tend to sit longer than others because appeals can last for years.
“If some court down the road decides that, yeah, that’s a good argument to re-try this case, we have the evidence,” said police spokeswoman Officer Teresa Fuller. Keeping cars on hand also means they’re available in case new techniques are developed for finding DNA or other evidence.
Most vehicles held in the evidence warehouse − about 80 percent − are from 2014 or 2015 cases, and Metcalf’s has been sitting longer than any other. Vehicles stored outside are usually from traffic collisions and are often so damaged they can’t be driven.
Inside the warehouse, there’s a lingering smell of gasoline. Cars are parked in wall-to-wall lines with narrow aisles for forensic analysts or property department staff to walk through.
Some cars have few clues about their former lives, while others look as if they’ve been frozen in traffic, their owners made temporarily invisible. Near the entrance, a sedan with a textured green paint job is packed full of someone’s earthly possessions, with a DVD copy of “Dumb and Dumber” visible through the window. A white truck parked near the middle of the room has open cases of bottled water in the bed. Another truck has a social worker’s card sitting on the dusty cab seat.
The cars are kept out of the elements so forensic evidence doesn’t degrade. Berry and his staff keep track of the cars with a filing system he likens to the Dewey Decimal System librarians use. They don’t collect or test evidence themselves, but provide access for prosecutors, defense attorneys, police officers and forensic analysts. When a case is closed and the vehicle is no longer needed as evidence, the registered owner gets a letter and can make an appointment to retrieve the car.
Unlike vehicles needed for evidence, seized vehicles can be sold at auction by the police department. Under Washington law, law enforcement officers can seize a vehicle if there’s evidence it was used to commit crimes, including making or delivering drugs.
One vehicle seized under that law is a Chevy Tahoe that once belonged to Kenneth Carter, a man police believe was trafficking oxycodone into Spokane from Cailfornia. Police served a search warrant at his house in March and found a scale, torch lighter, four oxycodone pills and methamphetamine in his car, according to court documents. Carter pleaded guilty in July to possessing oxycodone and unlawful possession of a gun. He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison, and his car, along with $746 in cash, was seized and forfeited.
“We’re not seizing Ferraris. The incentive here is not profit,” said Sgt. Daniel Ervin, who runs the civil enforcement unit. Instead, police say seizure helps remove the profit incentive from drug trafficking, since going to prison is seen by some traffickers as just a cost of doing business.
For a felony seizure, the person must be convicted of the felony before they forfeit their vehicle and other property. Under the drug law, police need only probable cause to believe the vehicle was used to commit a drug crime. People who have their property seized are notified and have 45 days to request a hearing to contest the seizure.
Carter contested the seizure, saying his car was not used to acquire or facilitate the sale of a drug, but the city’s hearing examiner sided with the police department.
Since the department’s civil enforcement unit was formed about a year ago officers have seized 35 vehicles that are still in storage. When police started using the evidence facility on Alki Avenue in 2011, Berry said it was more common to see about 10 seizures per year.
Overcrowding hasn’t become a huge problem yet, Berry said, but if new vehicles keep coming in at the rate they are now, police might need a bigger lot. Spots outside the building that are supposed to be parking for patrol officers who bring evidence in are taken up by mangled cars the traffic unit has brought in.
Inside, space is tight too. Getting to a vehicle parked along the wall can be a complicated game of Tetris, requiring staff to shift multiple vehicles out of their tightly-packed rows.
Berry said he’s exploring other options for keeping storage from getting too full. That could mean having evidence processed more quickly so vehicles can be cleared sooner.
“If we’re going to continue to seize vehicles at the rate we are, then we will need additional storage for that,” he said.
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