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Friday, April 8, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lawmakers give solid boot to vehicle-clamping practice

Times consumer-affairs reporter

The state is putting the bite on booting.

A measure to outlaw vehicle clamping on private property has cleared the Legislature and is headed for Gov. Christine Gregoire's desk, where it's expected to be signed into law, aides said yesterday.

The bill (ESB 5966) would make it a gross misdemeanor to place a locking device on the wheel of a vehicle to immobilize it. It is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Last month, it cleared the Senate on a vote of 46-0. Wednesday, it passed the House by a vote of 94-0. Assuming the governor signs it, the law would become effective 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, likely meaning late July.

Earlier this month, the owners of Clampdown Washington, a Seattle- and Bellevue-based clamping business that has been temporarily shut down by the state, vowed to put up a fight. But they admitted they probably waited too long.

"I think we didn't catch it [the legislation] in time," said owner Jason Rassaian. His wife and business co-owner, Natalia Rassaian, said that in addition to killing their business, the bill would limit the ability of private-property owners to enforce parking rules.

Clamping has become increasingly popular in the region in recent years. At least five companies have been clamping vehicles in Western Washington, according to records and interviews. One charged as much as $195 to release cars.

The practice has drawn complaints from consumers, who in some cases had verbal and even physical confrontations with clamping company attendants, police reports show. In several cases, police showed up but essentially threw up their hands and said the dispute was a "civil matter" they couldn't deal with.

Complaints also reached state Licensing Department officials, who since January have issued cease-and-desist orders against Clampdown Washington, as well as Mercer Island-based Total Parking Solutions and Tacoma-based Trac-Net Parking, two other clamping businesses.

No statute explicitly bans clamping, as the measure awaiting the governor's signature does. Still, licensing officials have interpreted state laws to require clamping companies to have a towing license, which none of them has.

Yesterday, Diane McDaniel, an assistant attorney general who is prosecuting the cease-and-desist cases, said the law's enactment would nullify the argument used by some clamping companies that clamping is legal.

"It will clarify to predator companies out there that they can't do it and can no longer claim that it's not illegal," McDaniel said.

Tamera Soukup, an assistant city attorney in Seattle who is familiar with the clashes and police responses in connection with clamping, said the legislation "will provide clear guidance for police officers in these circumstances and also will provide protection for citizens."

When vehicles are towed, the towing companies must follow certain regulations and procedures intended to protect vehicle owners. But no such protections are currently available to people whose vehicles are booted, Soukup said.

Peter Lewis: 206-464-2217 or plewis@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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