When can the police impound my car after a traffic stop?
In Washington State, after making a traffic stop, the police may impound a vehicle for three reasons: (1) as evidence of a crime; (2) under the community caretaking function (e.g. disabled car near a busy road); or (3) when the driver committed a traffic offense for which legislature expressly authorized an impound (e.g. driving while license suspended, or DUI).
So my car was towed after a traffic stop, how do I fight it?
Under the community caretaking allowance (#2 above), where the driver is present, police have to explore reasonable alternatives to inventorying the items in your car and having it towed away, including offering to call a family member or friend who could move the vehicle. This is according to a 2017 case by the name of State v. Froehlich. Here is a description of Froehlich, and its implications, from the police themselves.
Where the driver committed a traffic offense for which an impound is authorized by statute (#3 above), such as DUI or driving while license suspended, the police must evaluate reasonable alternatives to towing the vehicle. Basically, can the car be left where it is? If not, can a friend or family member nearby or at the scene drive it away? A 2019 case named State v. Villela clarified that this rule even applies to DUI stops, striking down a previous law which automatically authorized impound. One unpublished case about an officer's right to impound your vehicle indicates that his/her obligation to seek alternatives during a statutorily authorized impound does not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 avoid stumbling over some of these nuanced issues, 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 retrieve 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 10 days to file the request. You or your lawyer can do so 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 about what paperwork they need for this waiver.
According to the impound statute, the court then sets a hearing date and issues a summons to the agency or department that authorized the impound, and to the company that towed the vehicle.
A local issue.
Locally, in Jefferson County, there is an unresolved dispute as to whether a seperate summons by the party requesting the impound hearing should be sent to the agency or department's attorney pursuant to the civil rules and RCW 4.28.080. In my discussions with government lawyers from other counties, JeffCo seems to be the only jurisdiction making this argument. In any event, I will update this page if and when our courts reach a decision.
The impound hearing.
At the hearing, 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 agency that authorized the tow 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!). However, the statute does not authorize recovery for attorney's fees, so be thankful for that.
Having a lawyer at least look at the matter before you march into court will probably pay for itself.
*An October 2019 State Supreme Court case, State v. Villela nullified the statute that used to authorize an automatic police impound of vehicles associated with a DUI arrest. Police must now look for reasonable alternatives prior to authorizing impound.
Copyright: Jack Range - 2018
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