Seattle City Council
5/24/2004 4:46:00 PM
COUNCIL REPEALS VEHICLE IMPOUNDS FOR DWLS-3
Controversial practice has been said to disproportionately affect the poor and people of color; Council members call for new ideas to deal with violators
SEATTLE – In a 6-2 vote, the Seattle City Council today eliminated the City’s controversial practice of impounding the vehicles of people stopped for driving with a suspended license in the third degree. Vehicles may still be impounded if a person is accused of DWLS-1 or –2, which are more major offenses, and the Council added DWI as an offense for which cars can be impounded.
“It is simply wrong to take property without due process, so that is why I’m voting to undo this law,” said Councilmember Jean Godden in summing up the prevailing sentiment on the Council.
Godden, Nick Licata, David Della and Tom Rasmussen co-sponsored the legislation that repealed the law the City adopted in 1998 after the state gave municipalities authority to impound vehicles for this offense. Since then, opponents have argued that those punished most harshly by impounds are the poor who cannot afford to pay tickets that result in a license suspension, and who cannot then afford to get their vehicles out of impound and lose the cars permanently.
“I can’t believe that my ability to pay a ticket makes me a better driver than someone who can’t afford a ticket,” said Councilmember Richard J. McIver, who chided fellow Council members about the disproportionately issue before voting for the repeal. “I think we can keep from adding debt onto debt for people who can’t afford to pay it.”
Councilmember Jim Compton, who chaired the Council’s Public Safety Committee when the law was first passed and voted against today’s ordinance, said he was deeply concerned that the law had unintended consequences toward poor people and people of color, but at the same time it was a law that needed enforcement. When the first law was passed, it was Compton who initiated a relicensing program to help people get their driver’s licenses back.
“We are talking about what are fair and proportionate penalties for traffic infractions,” said Compton. “This is not about parking tickets. It is about persons who have failed to deal with fines for reckless driving, DUI, negligent driving, including alcohol. Driving with a suspended license often results for failure to appear in court and accumulating fines. I personally reject the notion that any group in this society is more or less capable of obeying the law.”
DWLS-3 involves drivers accused of continuing to drive a car after having their driver’s license suspended as a result of failing to pay the fine for a nonparking related traffic ticket, failing to respond to a nonparking related traffic ticket, or failing to reinstate a suspended license that the driver is eligible to reinstate. Under current practice, if a driver is accused of DWLS-3, police officers have discretion to impound a vehicle or arrest the driver, do both or do neither. Typically, police impound the vehicle, even if the automobile does not belong to the offending driver. Under the new law, impounds for DWLS-1 or –2 can only occur if the driver is the registered owner of the vehicle.
The new law also will allow a driver whose vehicle has been impounded to regain that vehicle once all fines and penalties owed to Seattle have been paid, even if the driver still owes money to other jurisdictions. While Seattle and King County offer time payments for tickets, many other jurisdictions do not.
“What seems clear is that we do not know how to deal appropriately with people who have DWLS-3,” said Councilmember Richard Conlin, who joined the majority in today’s action. “As a Council, we really need to put a lot of work into making the relicensing program work, and we need to come up with something new, just like impound was new several years ago.”
Council President Jan Drago, the other dissenting vote, noted that several weeks have passed since the impound repeal was put on hold by the Council during its budget adjustment in March. “I thought we’d put something together to address DWLS-3 before repealing this – clearly we haven’t.” Drago said the Council will now have to live with any potential budget implications associated with doing away with the impound option. City Attorney Tom Carr has said prosecution costs will go up as a result, but Councilmember Licata says he expects to see savings as more people take part in the City’s relicensing program.