Washington state’s second highest court endorsed the growing municipal practice of using extended vehicle impound periods to rack up fees. The a three-judge court of appeals panel considered the question in the context of whether Raymond Mann’s vehicle was rightly taken for thirty days by Kent police on March 13, 2009.
A police officer had run Mann’s license plate and discovered his driver’s license had been suspended. Mann was arrested and his car towed away and stored. Washington statutes provide that a vehicle “may be held for up to thirty days” if driven by someone with a suspended license. Mann requested a hearing in Kent municipal court and successfully argued that the city’s impound ordinance was unlawful because it failed to give the police officer at the scene discretion to reduce the period of impound. The court ordered the car released. The city appealed, and the King County Superior Court agreed the city ordinance violated state law. The city appealed again, and this time the court of appeals upheld Kent’s procedures.
“We hold that the ordinance is a valid exercise of the city’s authority under the impoundment statute,” appeals court Judge Michael S. Spearman wrote. “The statute’s plain language permits the vehicle to be held for up to a specified number of days ‘at the written direction of the agency ordering the vehicle impounded.'”
The appeals court disagreed with the lower court rulings that found the ordinance’s use of mandatory periods conflicted with the flexibility found in the word “may.” The lower courts were influenced by a 2002 state supreme court finding that found a Washington State Patrol regulation that imposed mandatory impoundment in all cases exceeded the authority granted under state law.
“The statute simply states that the agency may not hold a vehicle for more than the applicable number of days, and that it must provide written direction, Spearman wrote. “Other than the maximum impoundment periods set forth in the statute, there is nothing in the statute’s language from which we can discern a legislative intent to limit a municipality’s discretion regarding the period of impoundment… local impoundment ordinances must permit an officer to exercise discretion over the initial decision to impound. But after a vehicle is impounded, an ordinance may impose fixed, mandatory periods of impoundment, consistent with RCW 46.55.120(1)(a).”
The decision is good news for municipalities and private towing firms that charge a minimum of $174 per impound. On top of this, storage fees run $39 per day — or $1170 for the mandatory thirty-day period.
A copy of the decision is available in an 80k PDF file at the source link below.