ACLU Fights Car Impound Law

News Release: 
Monday, December 31, 2001

The ACLU is working with attorneys around the state to develop constitutional challenges to a new statute that unfairly punishes car owners for actions by others.  An amendment to state law adopted in 1998 authorizes police to impound for 30 to 90 days vehicles driven by a person with a suspended license – even if the driver doesn't own the car. 

A recent case in which the ACLU assisted a low-income couple from Texas vividly illustrates the problem.  While visiting friends in Washington, the couple had their son perform needed repairs on their truck.  When he drove the vehicle for a few minutes to test the repairs, he was stopped by a Washington State Patrol officer and was found to be driving with a suspended license.  The officer impounded the vehicle.

The truck is specially adapted to carry the husband’s motorized wheelchair (he is a paraplegic), and the wheelchair was in the vehicle when it was impounded.  The State Patrol refused to return the truck under a hardship exception, leaving the couple stranded in Washington.  It took pressure from the ACLU for the Patrol to agree to return the vehicle to the Texas couple and waive fees normally charged for “innocent owner” releases of impounded vehicles. 

Two attorneys assisted by the ACLU have obtained rulings that the impound statute violates equal protection principles because it protects rental companies but not other nondriver  "innocent owners."  As a result of these rulings, the Washington State Patrol agreed to change its regulations so that innocent owners will be able to get their cars back without waiting for a hearing. 

"Losing one's car or truck is a serious hardship.  It's grossly unfair for the government to seize a person's vehicle without a hearing, especially when they have done nothing wrong," said Julya Hampton, ACLU Legal Program Director.

The impound statute does not permit the release of a vehicle unless all outstanding fines are paid. And the owner must pay a fee to the towing company within five days of the impound.  Otherwise, the towing company can sell the vehicle at auction unless the owner pays a mandatory security deposit.  At the end of the impound period, the owner must pay all towing and storage fees.  Since the reason a person has a suspended license often is that he or she is too poor to pay traffic fines, low-income people lose their vehicles altogether.

Another troubling provision grants police immunity from suit as long as they rely “in good faith and without gross negligence” on Department of Licensing records.  So even if an impound is based on inaccurate state records or is found to be unlawful by the courts, the owner sometimes has to pay all of the costs from the impoundment. 

Although owners may request a hearing within 10 days from the date provided on the impound form, there is no mandatory time frame in which the hearing must take place.  Consequently, an owner may be charged for storage costs and even have his or her car sold at auction before receiving a hearing; and because the police are immune to suit, these costs may never be recovered.  The ACLU also is concerned that hearings may be limited to considering the amount of fees and not the fairness of the impoundment. 

The ACLU's Legal Department would like to hear from people who have experienced unfair treatment under the impoundment law.