Dude, Where's My Car?
Impound Ordinance May Violate State Constitution
"Seattle is really not the kind of city to live in without a car," Ward says. When the city took their car away in April, eight months after they bought it, Ward and her family fought back.
Their car was towed under City Attorney Mark Sidran's Operation Impound, a law enacted over two years ago to make Seattle's streets safer by towing cars belonging to drivers with suspended licenses.
From January of 1999 to December 2000, 10,562 cars were impounded under the law, and 31% of those owners did not get their cars back. Steep towing and storage fees, coupled with fines that must be paid before the suspended license is reinstated, mean many owners never see their cars again.
Unable to pay the hefty fees to get their car out of the impound lot, Ward and Bunford found a public defender who helped get them back on the road. Seattle--King County Public Defender Lisa Daugaard successfully appealed their case on July 5.
Daugaard explains the legal reasoning behind the court decision: "The most common basis for invalidating impoundments thus far has been that impoundment was 'unreasonable under the circumstances' under the state constitution."
In other words, many impounds are invalid under Article 1, Section 7 of the Washington State Constitution, which prohibits the invasion of private affairs without the authority of law. This is similar to protection against unreasonable searches and seizures under the U.S. Constitution.
In addition to the concern that Operation Impound unfairly targets lower-income people who can't afford to pay their tickets, there is a larger issue at stake: To put it bluntly, cops are towing cars on the spot before the courts determine whether or not the driver is guilty.
"One of the most fundamental objections to the impoundment policy is that it makes the police judge, jury, and executioner," Daugaard says.
Cars are also towed when there are other legally licensed drivers present who could drive the car away, a point that has won several appeals in court.
"Basic medical and family needs are taken away from us," Ward says, "without any hearing, without any recourse whatsoever."
Here's what happened in Ward and Bunford's case: He had outstanding tickets in Kitsap County from several years ago. Ward says that neither of them knew his license had been suspended because of the tickets.
On April 25, 2001, Bunford used the car to pick up Ward's mother from the airport. On the way home he was pulled over for speeding, and the officer informed Bunford of his suspended status. The family's car was then seized and transported to Columbia Towing's lot in South Seattle.
Ward's mother offered to drive the vehicle back to Ballard, since she had a valid license and insurance, but the officer sent her home in a taxi instead.
Over the next few weeks, Ward took time off of work to go to Columbia Towing and inquire about the status of their car. Once at the towing company, she filled out paperwork to request a hearing for May 8.
On May 8, as scheduled, Bunford and Ward went to room 106 of the Public Safety Building to meet with a hearing officer.
"Someone called our name, and we said we were here for a hearing," Ward says. "[The court employee] said we weren't on the list."
The pair left the Public Safety Building without a chance to speak to a hearing officer.
"This was immediately after a property seizure, and we never got the hearing we requested," Ward says. "I don't know how many people have actually gone into the Public Safety Building for a hearing and were told to get out."
Unable to pay the accumulated fees, Ward and Bunford found Daugaard. Together they went to court on July 5, and won their appeal. The city had to pay all towing, storage, and administrative fees, and Ward and Bunford got their car back.
But Ward isn't going to let the issue of the impound ordinance rest. She recently drove to an anti-Mark Sidran rally to tell her story.
"I don't think that just because the city ended up having to pay the towing company, that's justice for us," Ward says. "I owe it to everyone else to say something."