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Challenge your impound!

Washington State impound law is more helpful than you might think

· Impound,Washington State,Car towed,Impound Cost

In Washington State, after making a traffic stop, the police may impound a vehicle for three reasons: as evidence of a crime; under the community caretaking function (e.g. disabled car near a busy road); or when the driver committed a traffic offense for which legislature expressly authorized impoundment (e.g. driving while license suspended). Under the second two circumstances police have to explore reasonable alternatives to inventorying the items in your car and having it towed away. This even applies to DUI stops.* According to a 2017 case by the name of State v. Froehlich officers who seek to impound a car according to their community caretaking function must first ask the owner whether a family member or a friend can come move the vehicle. Here is a description of Froehlich and its implications from the police themselves.

Please note that as I write this post, there are a number of unpublished cases interpreting and limiting the scope of Froehlich. For example, one case about an officer's right to impound your vehicle indicates that his/her obligation to seek alternatives during a statutorily authorized impound does not necessarily include asking the driver whether family or friends can move the car. The officer merely has to consider alternatives depending heavily on the circumstances (time of day, location of the car, weather, proximity to other help, and whether the driver was the vehicle owner). To make the best argument possible, I strongly recommend contacting a lawyer. If you cannot afford one, try reaching out to a civil legal aid agency such as Northwest Justice Project

So, what if your car was impounded and the police never sought an alternative? When you retreive your car from impound, the tow company is required to give you a form called "Registered Tow Truck Operator Impound Vehicle Hearing Request". You have ten 10 days to fill it out and request a hearing to challenge the validity of the impound. You or your lawyer can file this at your local court of limited jurisdiction (Municipal Court or District Court) along with a filing fee (~$85 here in Jefferson County, WA). If you are too poor, or "indigent" in court language, you or your attorney can request a free hearing with the right paperwork. You will have to ask your local court what paperwork they need for this waiver.

Locally in Jefferson County, an unresolved issue is whether summons should just be sent by the court to the agency authorizing the impound as is described in the impound statute, or whether under the civil rules and RCW 4.28.080 summons should be delivered to the county auditor's office too. If you want a Court's judgement in your favor to stand up on appeal, it is probably best to play it safe and follow both procedures.

Then you get a hearing where you will point out the officer's failure to follow the requirements laid out in State v. Froehlich or any of the newer cases which interpret the same area of law. See subsection (2) and (3) of the vehicle impound statute. If you win, the Court will order the tow company to return the impound fee (woo hoo!). Additionally the court will enter a judgment in your favor against the police agency for the cost of the filing fee and any losses you suffered because your car was illegally taken away (oh yea!).** If you lose you could be on the hook for court costs, the impound rates, and the filing fee you already paid (ouch!). For this reason, you will want to be sure you'll win before requesting a hearing.

Having a lawyer at least look at the matter before you march into court will probably pay for itself.

Fine Print

*An October 2019 case, State v. Villela nullified the statute that used to authorize police impound of any vehicle associated with a DUI arrest. Police must now follow the rubric of State v. Froelich and it's associated case State v Tyler.

**However, the Court will not enter the losses judgment if the car was impounded because your license was suspended and the officers acted in good faith.

Copyright: Jack Range - 2018

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