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Wednesday, May 16, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Impound law dealt setback by judge

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Seattle's controversial impound ordinance suffered a legal blow yesterday when a judge ruled that police officers were required to consider "reasonable alternatives" before seizing cars under the law.

King County Superior Court Judge Michael Trickey granted the appeals of five people whose cars were towed under the ordinance in 1999, saying the state constitution requires alternatives to be considered before property is seized.

"If he's right, I would say it's the beginning of the end of impound," said City Attorney Mark Sidran, who championed the ordinance as a way to deter people from driving with suspended licenses.

The ordinance, enacted in 1999, allows police to impound the cars of people caught driving with suspended licenses. Most lost their licenses because they didn't pay tickets.

Critics say the law unfairly affects the poor and minorities. More than 40 percent of the 5,000 cars towed in 1999 belonged to African Americans. Many people never regain their cars.

Sidran said his office likely would appeal Trickey's ruling to the state Court of Appeals. If it stands, he said, it would "eviscerate" the purpose of the impound law, which was to take cars away from people who hold no valid license to drive them.

However, the public defender who argued the case was skeptical of the ruling's immediate effect.

"I think it's far from clear how big the effect of this will be," said Lisa Daugaard, a public defender who has led the charge against the impound law.

Daugaard said a long line of legal decisions had indicated that impounding property without a consideration of alternatives was illegal. And yet, she said, that hadn't stopped Seattle police from enforcing the local ordinance.

Sidran said that impounding the vehicles of people driving with suspended licenses is reasonable because it takes the cars out of the hands of those who should not be driving.

If Trickey's ruling stands, Sidran said, police will rarely impound cars because "reasonable alternatives" might include leaving the car parked until a friend of the driver's could pick it up.

And inevitably, Sidran said, the driver with a suspended license would wind up driving it again.

The five cases ruled on by Trickey yesterday were the first to reach King County Superior Court, Daugaard said. Her office has been successful in 18 of 19 challenges so far, mostly in Municipal Court. But most people don't challenge the impounds.

"These are poor people, and they can't go hire a lawyer," said Daugaard, a defender with the Seattle-King County Public Defender Association's Racial Disparity Project.

But Leo Poort, the Police Department's legal adviser, said he hoped the city would be able to keep the law because it gives officers a way to deter illegal drivers.

"Officers are trying to do right by the public, not just the person behind the wheel," Poort said.

The City Council today will be updated on the impound law's effect. A report to be delivered by Sidran and police credits the law with cutting jail bookings of African Americans in half because when the car is impounded, the driver is not arrested. The reduction in all bookings under the impound law is estimated to save $370,000 in jail costs.

Outrage over the ordinance led to an attempt to overturn it last year, but opponents fell one council vote short. The issue may be raised again in light of Trickey's ruling.

"I would hope with this decision that the council would look at it once again, either abandoning this legislation or altering it so it would make our streets safe without stepping on the rights of our citizens," said Councilman Nick Licata, one of the measure's critics.

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