New approach needed on impounds

Last month the Seattle City Council amended Operation Impound, passed in 1998, which required impound of cars driven by people accused of driving with a suspended license (DWLS) and held until all fines are paid, while storage fees compound daily.

The bill made these critical changes:

1. Eliminates impoundment of vehicles driven by people accused of DWLS-3, those who, when found guilty, have failed to pay a fine associated with a traffic infraction. DWLS-1 and DWLS-2 drivers have been suspended because of a DUI, reckless driving, or a history of bad driving. The changes will not affect DWLS-1 and -2 drivers.

2. The bill allows impoundment of vehicles for drivers charged with driving while intoxicated.

Why change?

* Separates the innocent from the guilty

DWLS is a misdemeanor that people are innocent of until proven guilty in court. Defenses that one accused can offer in court may result in acquittal. An officer who pulls a driver over and sees only the Department of Licensing records cannot determine guilt or innocence. Twenty-two thousand cars have been impounded since 1998; one third were auctioned, without any determination of guilt for the underlying charge. The city has liability for improperly auctioned vehicles. This is the risk the city runs with a roadside justice approach.

* Safe roads are a red herring

Proponents of the law rely upon California and Ohio studies. The conclusions reached by these studies do not apply to Seattle. The Ohio study only evaluated the results of impounding cars driven by people with licenses suspended for drunk driving. California law requires payment programs and fines adjusted to income for drivers who cannot afford to pay their tickets, cars impounded in California belong to people who committed offenses such as DWI, DUI, reckless driving and hit-and-run accidents.

Yet Seattle's law scoops up the cars of drivers without any record of dangerous driving. The assumption that the person who doesn't pay their ticket is a more reckless driver than the person who pays is not supported by the facts.

* The law has not resulted in reduced costs

Municipal Court Case Load: We can find no correlation between Operation Impound and the reduction in Court caseload; the DWLS caseload reduction can just as easily be attributed to re-licensing programs that have been established independently.

DWLS Jail Bookings: Proponents are quick to point out that DWLS jail bookings have decreased. The primary reason for this is the City Attorney's decision to dismiss DWLS charges after they are filed, relying on impoundment to punish the car owner (who may be entirely innocent of wrongdoing). When there are fewer cases in the court system, there are fewer jail bookings.

* Lawsuits

There have been a number of legal claims associated with Operation Impound. These claims have resulted in expenses associated with defending the city as well as the expense associated with paying the wronged party. Within the last month, a federal court judge has authorized 10,000 to 20,000 people to maintain a class-action suit against the City of Seattle for unlawful impoundments, based upon a case in which a smaller group of plaintiffs have already prevailed.

What now?

You may have heard people say "it's better to jail cars than people." I suggest that in the majority of cases we don't have to do either. I call upon City Attorney Tom Carr to work with us to explore the benefits of a new approach.

The efforts of the King County Council, King County District Court and County Prosecutor Norm Maleng have led to creation of a pre-filings diversion program. The accused DWLS-3 offender, before the prosecutor files charges, is invited to participate in the King County re-licensing program. This program is an opportunity for time payments for the fines associated with their tickets. In exchange for participation the prosecutor does not file charges.

This reduces costs relating to prosecution, public defense, as well as potential jail costs. The prosecutor files charges if there is a refusal to participate in the re-licensing program or if there is failure to complete the program. As a result, King County only prosecutes 25 percent of the total accused DWLS 3 population, and they've reduced the filing of DWLS charges by 75 percent. The savings and revenue collected pays for the program.

A good policy will separate the innocent from the guilty and the scofflaws from those who want to have their license reinstated, while reducing the costs associated with DWLS 3 and limiting the City's exposure to lawsuits. We need City Attorney Tom Carr's cooperation to accomplish this by adopting a pre-trial diversion program, threatening to prosecute those who will not re-license, while withholding prosecution for those who pay their fines and drive legally.

Nick Licata is a member of the Seattle City Council. He can be reached at or 684 - 8803.

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