Urban Politics #86: Proposed Impoundment Ordinance Change

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.



  • History
  • Review Of Past Studies
  • Objectives Of Impoundment Ordinance
  • Proposed Change
  • Public Hearing


In 1982 the City Council enacted into law Ordinance 119180 or Operation Impound. Operation Impound provides for the towing of the cars driven by people with a suspended license as well as drivers of vehicles with more than four parking tickets. Operation Impound was passed in 1998 to improve road safety and reduce the rate of jail bookings for driving while license suspended (DWLS).

One of the main proponents for Ordinance 119180 is City Attorney Mark Sidran. He has relied on California and Ohio studies that show that impound programs significantly improve road safety. These studies are the foundation for Operation Impound.

Review Of Past Studies

Since Operation Impound was enacted we have found that the Ohio study often sited by the proponents of Seattle’s law only evaluated the results of impounding the cars driven by people with licenses suspend for drunk driving. It certainly is common sense that impounding the cars of people who are driving with licenses suspended for drunk driving would make the roads safer, but Seattle’s law impounds the vehicles of people who have suspended licenses for non-payment of moving violations. There are no studies that show that a person who has failed to pay a ticket for a broken taillight is more likely to get in an accident.

Similarly, the California study is a comparison of apples and oranges. California state statute mandates time payment programs for drivers who can not afford to pay their tickets and California state law requires that courts adjust traffic fines to a drivers income. Consequently in California a very small percentage of drivers have suspended licenses due to unpaid tickets as compared to this state. The cars being impounded in California do not belong to people who are driving with suspended licenses due to unpaid tickets, but are people who have their licenses suspended because they have committed offenses such as DWI, DUI, reckless driving, and hit and run. In short, the conclusions that we can reach by studying the effect of the California and Ohio laws on road safety simply do not apply to Seattle because Seattle’s Operation Impound scoops up the cars of drivers who are simply not dangerous, unlike the Ohio and California laws.

Objectives Of Impoundment Ordinance

One of the primary purposes of Operation Impound is to reduce the driving while license suspended jail bookings and caseloads. The City Attorney points out that DWLS jail filings are down 26.5% as compared to before Operation Impound was instituted. This point fails to recognize that jail filings are down for all categories of misdemeanors – 25% for the same period of time. One can not conclude that the reduction in DWLS jail filings are a result of Operation Impound when jail filings for all misdemeanor crimes are down.

Proponents of Operation Impound say that it is much better to jail cars than people, but they fail to acknowledge that in 1998 DWLS accounted for 20% of all misdemeanor jail bookings and in 1999 DWLS still represented 19% of all jail bookings. The enabling state statute requires a municipality to charge with DWLS in order to impound someone’s car. Although the requirement to charge with DWLS is mandatory, the decision to prosecute is discretionary. In 90% of those cases the City Attorney pursues those charges as well as impounding vehicles. In other words, in 90% of the cases we are BOTH locking up people’s cars AND pursuing traditional prosecution of DWLS. As a matter of fact, a March 16 Municipal Court ruling has found that the City does not have the authority to impound the vehicles of people driving with a suspended license unless that person is also arrested. Operation Impound does not and can not serve as a diversionary program to traditional law enforcement as its proponents claim.

A similar claim is that Operation Impound is responsible for the reduction in Municipal Court case load. We can find no correlation between Operation Impound and the Municipal Court caseload. Although Municipal Court caseloads overall fell 10% between 1998 and 1999 and DWLS caseloads fell 15% for the same period of time, the higher DWLS caseload reduction should be attributed to relicensing programs that have been established independently from Operation Impound.

An analysis of the impact of Operation Impound seriously brings into question whether we are accomplishing the goals of increased road safety and reduction of jail bookings and case loads. Not only am I forced to question the basis upon which this program was passed but I am compelled to take a hard look at the consequences of this program for Seattle’s residents.

Proposed Change

I have been working with the Drive to Survive Committee to make changes to the Operation Impound Program. The Drive to Survive Committee has at its members the Central Area Motivation Project (CAMP), the Labor and Employment Law Office (LELOS), and the Office of the Public Defender. The Drive to Survive Committee agrees that there is no dispute that there is a statewide crisis of suspended license driving. Yet they go on to say that “this is because for years the courts have not offered reasonable payment options to low income drivers. Is it fair, or good public policy, to threaten these drivers with impoundment – they’ve already lost their license, been arrested, prosecuted and in some cases done jail time – when their only crime is being too poor to immediately pay huge fines for minor traffic violations?”

Council Member Richard McIver and I have a proposal before Councilmember Jim Compton’s Public Safety and Technology Committee to amend the Operation Impound program. I believe that we should continue to impound the cars of people who are driving with license suspended in degree 1 and 2. This population of drivers are dangerous drivers who should have an enforced “time out” for driving. They should have their cars impounded because they are driving when the state has declared them dangerous drivers. We should not impound the vehicles of people who are driving with license suspended in degree 3 — people who have their license suspended because they haven’t paid a ticket. My proposal suspends the City’s ability to impound the vehicles of people driving with a suspended license in the third degree while continuing to permit the impounding of vehicles of drivers DWLS in the 1st and 2nd degree and vehicles belonging to people with four or more parking tickets.

Public Hearing

Today, Thursday, April 6, at 5:30 PM Council Member Jim Compton will be sponsoring a City Council Forum on Operation Impound. The Panelists are City Attorney Mark Sidran, Yolande Williams from the Seattle Municipal Court, Hayward Evans of CAMP and Lisa Daugaard of the Office of the Public Defender. The panel discussion is from 5:30PM until 6:15 PM with public testimony from 6:15 until 8PM.

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