Wednesday, April 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle's impound law: not fair to too many

Under Seattle's impound law, a driver with a suspended license most often has his car towed away. City Attorney Tom Carr, with the support of the Nickels administration, proposes to end prosecution for the least serious class of these offenders and make towing the sole penalty. City Councilman Nick Licata proposes to retain the threat of prosecution so offenders will pay their tickets and get their licenses, but to leave their cars alone.

The second approach is fairer, if more expensive to the city.

First, some background. The offense, "Driving While License Suspended," comes in three sizes: class one, for violators with a long history of dangerous driving; class two, for violators with a short history of serious infractions, such as driving drunk; and class three, mainly those who have had licenses suspended for failure to pay traffic tickets. The argument is over the last group, which is the least serious but the largest.

One joins this group by getting a ticket, ignoring it and continuing to drive. There comes another traffic ticket. A check by the officer shows a suspended license. The car is impounded — an event that happens about 4,000 times a year. If this is the driver's first offense, he can pay his tickets and the towing fee, perhaps $100, and get his car back that day. After several violations, the car is held for 30 days. Each day generates an impound fee, which may be $10 a day or $30 a day, depending on the tow yard's part of town. In that 12-month period, 29 percent of the cars were left unclaimed, and were put up for auction.

Why would an owner not reclaim his car? He may be poor, and not be able to raise the money. Also, it may be a car worth $800 with $1,000 worth of tickets, a towing charge and storage fees against it. Either way, the owner loses the car, which may mean he can't get to work. It is also common for an arrested driver not to own the car. Maybe he borrowed it from his aunt. The law does not care; if the driver has a suspended license, the car is impounded.

The slogan for the impound policy is that it is more humane to jail cars than to jail people. But the right policy is not for Seattle automatically to impound vehicles or citizens. King County doesn't. The right policy is to threaten a penalty so that drivers get licensed and make good on their debts.

The motive for Seattle to suggest zero prosecutions and 100 percent impound is money. Carr was asked to chop $400,000 out of the city attorney's budget and relying 100 percent on impounds is a way to do it. That is because the costs of impounds do not come out of the city attorney's budget — but they are real costs, and real people pay them.

They, too, deserve a system that retains legal process and human judgment.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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