Rhys Sterling, an Issaquah lawyer, checked the Washington State Supreme Court website on Wednesday morning, December 11, and spent the next 24 hours on edge. On Thursday morning, the website said, the court was going to announce its decision on a case Sterling argued in May.

"On the one hand, you're confident about it," 53-year-old Sterling says. "On the other hand, you're nervous." But his anxiety vanished on Thursday morning, when Sterling saw that he'd won: The state supreme court ruled against the infamous impound law, which allowed Washington State Troopers (and local police) to order drivers' cars towed--no exceptions--if their licenses were suspended.

The court decision says officers must consider other options before impounding a car. In other words, if another driver is available to take the car away, it shouldn't be towed. "I think it's pretty doggone clear," Sterling says. "[They] cannot impound vehicles when a reasonable alternative exists. It's the element of discretion. The court slammed the door on all these mandatory impound programs." Though the decision was aimed at state troopers, Seattle's city attorney will amend the city's impound rule for Seattle police. This is great news. Seattle's own car impound ordinance has been heavily criticized for disproportionately affecting low-income drivers. Not only are low-income drivers more likely to have suspended licenses for not being able to pay off fines, they're also less able to afford the fees to get their cars back. An ad hoc coalition, Drive to Survive, sprung up to oppose the ordinance--also viewed as racist--in 1999, with attorney Lisa Daugaard fighting and winning case-by-case battles versus the city.

The court's ruling is a huge slap in the face to former City Attorney Mark Sidran, who championed the city's impound ordinance (along with other recently struck down "civility" laws, like the poster ban). One local activist gleefully e-mailed The Stranger when she heard the news: "We are always right and they are always wrong!" she wrote, referring to a list of Sidran's ordinances and proposals shot down by local judges.

Sterling's case involved an incident where an employee of All Around Underground of Black Diamond was caught driving the company van with a suspended license. Sterling, who usually practices land-use law, lost the case in district court and King County Superior Court, but appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court.

This is the second case Sterling has argued before the state supreme court. In 1997, he argued for a citizen petition to carve a new "Cedar County" out of eastern King County, and lost. "The supreme court didn't care for that at all," Sterling says. "I'm batting .500."


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