“Same law, different fees”

Penalties on impounded cars depend on who makes the arrest

“Anyone caught driving without a valid license anywhere on North Whidbey will have to wave bye-bye to their cars for awhile.But how long until a driver can be reunited with a car and how much it will cost to get it back depends on who pulls them over.The Washington State Patrol, in nearly all cases, will hold your car longer and charge you more to get it back. The Island County Sheriff, the Oak Harbor Police and Coupeville Police all hold cars for shorter times, which means smaller impound fees.Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley said he thinks the patrol’s tough penalties fall most heavily on the low-income, who tend to rack up more suspended license penalties for failures to pay traffic fines. But the full range of penalties is allowed by a year-old state law that empowers the police to seize your car for driving without a valid license.Say, for example, a man without a history of serious traffic offenses forgets to pay a minor speeding ticket and his license gets suspended. Suppose he’s been cited once before in the last five years for driving without a valid license.If a state trooper catches him driving and cites him for third-degree driving without a license, his car will be impounded for 30 days. But if an Island County Sheriff’s deputy pulls him over, he’ll lose his car for only 72 hours. If an Oak Harbor police officers gets him, his car will be impounded only until he pays all traffic fines, as well as towing and storage fees.On Oct. 1, the State Patrol joined Island County and Coupeville in requiring impoundment for anyone caught driving with a suspended or revoked license, or no license at all.This week, the Oak Harbor City Council is expected to pass its own impoundment policy.The penalties differ because of the way the state Legislature drafted the law. The state made it optional for any jurisdiction to create its own impoundment ordinance for those caught driving without a license. The legislation only offers a maximum number of days that cars can be impounded, which is set according to the seriousness of the offense.While the State Patrol set the impoundment penalties as strict as allowed under law, other law enforcement agencies chose to be less draconian. Although Island County was one of the first jurisdictions in the state to set up its own impoundment ordinance about a year ago, Sheriff Mike Hawley said the maximum impoundment times would have been “much too punitive,” especially for poorer families. Coupeville and Oak Harbor — if the ordinance passes — have followed the county’s lead in drafting their impoundment regulations.According to Hawley, the “typical person” ticketed for driving without a valid license are people who own cars worth less than $1,000. Since it would cost nearly $850 to get a car out of impoundment after 30 days — impoundment plus towing fees — most people will just abandon the car. Then the towing company will sell it and the driver will be without a car.In fact, Christian Towing owner Richard Christian said that’s exactly what has happened. In the last year, he said only three cars have been impounded for 30 days or more. None of the owners came to claim the cars. Lisa Scheerer of the Oak Harbor Opportunity Council pointed out that such financial penalties are toughest on people with little money.“Poor people are least able to come up with that kind of money, especially when it increases every day,” she said, pointing out that a person without a car might lose a job and not be able to pay to get a car back. “It’s a Catch-22.”According to the State Patrol, about 80 percent of suspended licenses are suspended for unpaid traffic tickets. Christian said the state sets the impoundment fees at $25 a day and towing at $93.The county’s ordinance, Hawley said, is a good fit for the county. “It’s still costly enough to send a message,” Hawley said, “but not so onerous that we’re just seizing cars all over the place.”The State Patrol sees it differently. Sgt. Darrin Grondel said that making the roads safer by keeping unlicensed people from driving is his paramount concern.Grondel said suspended drivers are more likely to be involved in collisions and seldom have insurance. In 1998, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 128 drivers involved in 662 fatal collisions did not have a valid license.“Most people are suspended for a good reason,” Trooper Scott Wernecke said. “They thumb their nose at the courts and keep on driving. (Impoundment) makes the roads safer.””