Towing the line

The city cracks down on chronic bad drivers—and parkers.

IF YOU AND YOUR car don't behave yourselves in Seattle, one of you is headed for the impound yard.

The Seattle City Council recently approved an ordinance through which police expect to impound 11,000 cars annually from motorists who used to get off with a ticket and a scolding. Some 8,000 drivers per year who are cited for driving with a suspended license will now see their cars hauled off and held in storage for up to 90 days—at the owner's expense. Another 3,000 cars belonging to drivers with more than four unpaid parking tickets would also be towed, but immediately released.

Although the ordinance technically takes effect this month, the tow trucks won't roll until January 1, allowing time for a public information campaign about the new laws.

The rationale behind the ordinance is simple: Only confiscation can prevent such miscreants from re-offending. "When you have someone's car, their hearts and minds will surely follow," quips Mark Sidran, Seattle's always-quotable city attorney. Indeed, current punishment of unlicensed drivers is surprisingly lax and all but useless. After being cited by police, the driver is left by the side of the road with his car. Most simply drive away to offend again. "We leave the instrument of their problem in their hands," says Sidran.

Last year, 318,973 of the state's 4.2 million licensed drivers had their licenses suspended or revoked, according to the state Department of Licensing. This figure has risen in recent years as legislators have used license suspension as a disciplinary tool. In addition to repeated traffic offenses or driving while intoxicated, motorists can now have their licenses suspended for non-payment of traffic tickets, failing to purchase auto insurance, or even falling behind on child support payments. The effect of taking away the license but not the car is surely not what the laws have intended: Nationally, studies have shown that the vast majority of drivers with suspended licenses continue to drive—and are four times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than a licensed motorist.

As license suspension is imposed on top of other penalties, a driver who fails to appear in court on a "driving while license suspended" (DWLS) charge is also made subject to an arrest warrant—which means that the driver is to be jailed on his or her next traffic stop. These minor offenders clog the city's municipal court, says Sidran. In 1996, DWLS offenders made up 29 percent of the court's caseload, up from 21 percent in 1994. More than half of these persons fail to appear for their court date, resulting in the issuance of another arrest warrant. Moreover, when a prisoner is booked into King County Jail, the city pays a booking fee of $100 and $60 for each day of incarceration. So in jail fees alone, DWLS offenders cost the city almost $1.3 million in 1996.

Sidran calls the DWLS issue "a subset of a much bigger problem." A 1995 study of 100,000 misdemeanor cases in the Seattle, Redmond, and King County courts showed that 48 percent of defendants don't show up for their mandated hearing. Turning up the heat on these chronic repeat offenders is good public policy, says Seattle City Council member Tina Podlodowski, Public Safety Committee chair. The hope is that the car impoundment provisions will "do something that will grab their attention and change their behavior."

"What happens now," adds Sidran, "is people get one or two tickets and get into the cycle of not paying tickets and having the fines compound. So a $100 problem very quickly becomes a $1,000 problem."

What's more, the threat of vehicle impoundment tends to get these traditionally lousy drivers in a more safety-conscious state of mind. A recent California Department of Motor Vehicles study of four California cities with impoundment laws showed that accident rates for drivers fell 25 percent after a one-time impoundment and 38 percent among those whose cars were impounded twice or more.

Although many DWLS cases are simply the result of irresponsible behavior, about 15 percent of Seattle cases involve more serious offenders, including repeat drunk drivers. "Taking the vehicle away, especially from a repeat drunk driver, is a great way to keep them from using their vehicle as a weapon," says Jonna VanDyk, Washington Traffic Safety Commission spokesperson. Drinking and driving, she notes, is still the single biggest cause of fatal collisions.

PUBLIC OPPOSITION TO the Seattle ordinance was minimal. Director Robert Boruchowitz of the Defender Association, the largest of Seattle's three public defender organizations, complained that many of the current license suspensions are for strictly financial reasons, including failure to pay traffic tickets. "The proposed impoundment would aggravate poverty rather than address the issue of ensuring that drivers be licensed," wrote Boruchowitz in a letter to the council. He also sees a bias against low-income persons in the Seattle law's requirement that cars can only be released when all fines are paid. There is no question that those costs can be daunting. According to Mel McDonald, Seattle's director of revenue and consumer affairs, a $50 city administrative charge and an $8-per-day vehicle storage fee will likely be added to the $75 towing bill. This means an offender would have to pay $365 to reclaim an auto at the end of a 30-day impoundment, in addition to whatever court fees are owed. Operating a car is already an expensive prospect for low-income persons—at least $1,714 annually for a gas-efficient compact car, according to American Automobile Association estimates—and a nearly 25 percent increase in those costs could well make driving unaffordable to the poor.

Impoundments can be appealed to the city's hearing examiner, and the spouse of a DWLS offender can also petition for release based on economic or personal hardship from the loss of the vehicle.

The council approved the impoundment program 8-1, although it did accept Boruchowitz's suggestion that quarterly reports on the program be compiled, including information on the race of persons whose vehicles are impounded.

Council member Peter Steinbrueck, the lone vote against the program, says his objections were to that section of the ordinance mandating impoundment of cars belonging to people who habitually fail to pay parking tickets. "I'm really disappointed that I was the lone vote on that," he says. "To me, it impacts the poor disproportionately. To lose your car means you could lose your job." Steinbrueck notes that it is not uncommon for otherwise law-abiding citizens to get multiple parking tickets or be late in paying them. "I actually got a ticket myself when I was appealing a ticket years ago, because I had to wait two hours for my magistrate hearing," he adds. If a delinquent parker is found to have four unpaid tickets, the car would be towed and held until a $115 fee is paid.

Steinbrueck also objects to a companion measure raising the city's overtime parking charge from $20 to $25, complaining that the council was pressured. Since the raise's resulting $3.2 million in new revenue had already been programmed into Mayor Paul Schell's proposed budget, the council was given the choice of accepting it or making $3.2 million in cuts.

The new impoundment program also raised problems for the council in its budget deliberations. Under the martial-theme code name "Operation Impound," police officials requested five new employees to staff a special impoundment unit. Council members have thus far been unimpressed with this proposal, saying that the police should staff the unit by shifting existing personnel.

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