A sad lot

Seattle's new impound law is enriching the city while stripping the poor of their cars.

It's a typically fine Seattle day to be indoors. But a hundred or so hopeful car buyers are kicking bald tires and bundling themselves against an icy wind that's sweeping the Lincoln Towing storage yard off Aurora Avenue N. They sip coffee and thumb through the sales lists. Some with greasy hands nibble microwave burgers from a nearby food truck.

At 10am, this and every Saturday, it's time for one person's costly misery to become another person's deal of the century.

"Five dollars, going once, going twice. Sold to—would you hold up your number, sir?" rings out the metallic voice of an auctioneer, leaning out the window of a small open trailer and pointing to a gangly man in the milling crowd.

Jerry Johnson raises a numbered card. Only minutes into the daylong auto sale, Johnson has already bought two cars for $5 each—admittedly, pigs in a poke. "Just jalopies," says Johnson, a mechanic. "I'll probably end up parting them out."

But these days there are more than just dead-engine wrecks at Lincoln's regular Saturday auctions. Thanks to a new state law that mandates that anyone caught driving with a suspended license gets their car immediately impounded, the usual broken-down and abandoned cars in Lincoln's block-long yard are giving way to rows of solid, drivable vehicles selling for as little as $50 to $200.

"It's something you didn't used to often see," says Johnson, peering inside a 1985 Lincoln that in a few minutes will sell for $175. "It has keys, it's licensed. And it starts!"

Since the law took effect in January, the city has impounded almost 1,000 vehicles that are classified as DWLS (Driving While License Suspended). The new policy is a moneymaker for the city, which charges a $49 penalty, plus a $12 daily storage fee, for each DWLS tow. (That's in addition to Lincoln's bill.) Supporters believe the new law also helps to reduce crime, since there seems to be significant overlap between the people who drive with a bum license and the people who are wanted to appear at Municipal Court.

But critics, such as King County Council member Larry Gossett, say the impound law unfairly targets minorities and punishes the poor, for whom the loss of a car means being stripped of one more essential tool for keeping a job. "This is another law that penalizes people not for criminality but for poverty," says Gossett.

On average, an owner who quickly retrieves a car might pay $100. But a car reclaimed after a month could cost $500 with added fees and storage charges. Some cars may not be worth it, while in other instances their owners simply may not have the money. Vehicles that have not been reclaimed in 90 days have their fates sealed on Saturday morning. If no one buys them, they're crushed into small metal bundles for recycling.

"We're running out of room fast," says a lot worker for Lincoln, which holds the contract to tow from four of six city impound zones. "The sales are getting longer every Saturday."

Seattle officials expect the towing frenzy to pick up even more starting this month. Parking enforcement officers have just launched an all-out crackdown on parking ticket scofflaws. Under a new law, vehicles that show four or more unpaid parking citations will be impounded. Some 60,000 drivers owe more than $15 million in unpaid fines.

The city has projected it eventually will be towing 750 cars each month for DWLS and 250 more for unpaid tickets. Combined with other impounds, that's 35,000 police tows a year, with possibly a quarter of those winding up on the auction block. The state patrol also plans to impound the cars of drivers with suspended or revoked licenses, and King County is likely to adopt a similar program next month.

It's all necessary, officials say, as a safety measure. The state estimates there are 260,000 drivers on the road whose licenses have been suspended for serious traffic offenses like drunk driving. Studies show these drivers are four times more likely to be involved in accidents. Unlicensed drivers accounted for a third of Seattle Municipal Court citations last year; half of those people did not show up for their court hearings.

But where some see a public safety issue, County Council member Gossett sees discrimination. According to statistics he obtained from Seattle police, of the first 800 cars towed January through March under DWLS, 36 percent were owned by African Americans, who comprise just 11 percent of Seattle's population. Altogether, police stopped 1,500 DWLS drivers in those three months, 44 percent of whom were African-American, he says. (Not all the cars were impounded.)

A police spokesperson denies that minorities are targeted by city tows. "That's not true. Our impounds have always reflected the general demographics of Seattle. Anyone anywhere can get towed."

Gossett says he wants to come up with "better ways to deal with the problem," but he's not getting much support from his county cohorts. "I don't think I've influenced many people yet," Gossett says. "I just hope when people hear the story of who is most impacted by this law, they will at least think about it a little more critically."

Like bargain buyers and tow companies, the city gains nicely from the distress sales: $43 on each parking scofflaw and $49 on each DWLS tow. (By contrast, the city usually collects only an $8 administrative fee on the average police impound.) "Our administrative costs are just higher on those impounds," says a spokesperson for the city's Consumer Affairs Unit. "There's more paperwork, for one." If DWLS and scofflaw impounds hit their projected 11,000 tows this year, the city can expect to make $500,000—although profit is not the motive, the city insists.

Some will undoubtedly be losing cars that get them to work; others, with no other place to stay, will lose their de facto homes. That seemed evident in some of the 100 cars on the block during a recent Saturday auction: Inside were clothes, shoes, baby needs, personal papers, books, and toiletries—the sad belongings of people abruptly separated from their transportation.

But such sentiment isn't stopping the lines of eager bidders. And some of Lincoln's regulars complain they're getting elbowed out by the amateurs.

"Oh, lady," one man moaned after he lost out to a newcomer who kept bidding, in $50 rather than $5 increments, for a DWLS 1995 Peugeot in decent condition, and who eventually bought it for $500. "On another day," said the man, "I could have gotten it for $80."

The auctions can also serve as a handy way around the new law. "A guy was here last week," says Jerry Johnson, "bought a car cheap. He said it was his buddy's, who lost it for driving suspended and owed hundreds to get it back."

Instead, with his buddy's money, the friend bought the car back for him—for less than $100, Johnson says. "Now I suppose the guy's out driving it again—yeah, with no license, I'm sure."

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