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Car impounds now longer for suspended drivers

"There was a time in Island County when getting your car impounded by law enforcement meant that you lost the use of your car for a couple of days and had to pay a small fine to get it back.Now, with the imposition of a new state law, getting caught with a suspended license can cause drivers to lose their cars for good. Since October, Washington State Patrol troopers have been impounding cars for a minimum of 30 days every time they have come across a driver with a suspended or revoked license. At the price of $25 a day for the impound, drivers face a bill of $850 or more when they go to pick up their cars -- which can be more than an impounded car is actually worth.The longer impound makes the roads safer, according to State Patrol Chief Annette Sandberg. Statistically three times more likely to be involved in collisions and less likely to carry liability insurance, unlicensed drivers are targets under the new law.Sergeant Darrin Grondel, the trooper handling public information related to the new impound law, said locking away someone’s car will make the roads safer.“It’s a matter of traffic safety,” Grondel said.Sheriff impounds aren’t so lengthyThe Island County Sheriff’s Office wants to protect the public as much as any other agency, however it does not impound cars for as long a period of time as the State Patrol. Counties and cities may adopt the state impound law, or use their own, as Island County has done. For a first offense on a suspended license, the county impounds a car for 72 hours. Most other violations call for the 72-hour or a 10-day limit. Sheriff Mike Hawley said using longer impound periods not only uses the law to punish an unlicensed driver, but economics as well. During a 30 or 60-day impound, fees and fines can easily surpass the value of a car. With every day that passes, it becomes less and less likely that a car’s owner can afford to get it back.“A majority of the cars we’re impounding run between $1,000 and $2,000,” Hawley said. When impounded cars fall out of the economic reach of their owners, Hawley said government walks a thin line on the issue of private property rights. That is one reason he wants to see the county’s impound law to differ from the state law.“It was my view, the way it was written ... it was too draconian,” Hawley said.Suspended drivers seen as menaceBut the State Patrol has its view, too, and backs up its stiff stance with statistics that show drivers with suspended licenses to be a greater menace on the road than the average driver. For example, in 1993, 27 percent of the 120 suspended drivers involved in fatal DUI accidents had prior DUI convictions. That is compared to 1.7 percent of the 713 drunk drivers with valid licenses involved in the same type of collision.Sgt. Grondel acknowledged that having two different statutes in force in Island or any other county can be a headache for the courts when they enforce patrol citations. But the new law makes procedures for a suspension arrest clearer than before. In the past, impounds were not mandatory, nor was there a hold period on impounded cars. That left a good deal of decision-making to the troopers and often negated the punishment factor an impound is supposed to carry.Towing companies find law painfulWhile it is plain that drivers affected by the new law are not going to be happy about it, the other affected parties -- towing companies -- may also be taking a negative hit. Gordy Simmons, owner of Clinton’s Simmons Towing, said he puts 25 to 30 cars in his impound yard every month at the request of law enforcement. Many of them are there because they have been involved in accidents or have been abandoned at the side of the road. And they often stay there for a long time, especially the abandoned cars. It is common for the owner of a run- down car to fill it with trash and park it on a public road, said Simmons, just to get rid of it.“It’s getting to be a real pain,” he said. “I have threatened to quit towing for the county.”The new State Patrol regulations will add to that pain, as Simmons will have to hang onto cars longer, often until the daily impound fines exceed the value of a particular car. Then he is stuck with another junk vehicle and all the paperwork it takes to either become the de facto owner prior to auction, or to haul it to a wrecking yard.The county and state do have mechanisms built into their impound ordinances that make them more user-friendly. An appeals process designed for hardship cases can keep a car out of impound if the actions of one driver in a family might take away others’ only access to a car. Hawley said the point to having a suspended/revoked license law is to punish a driver, not his or her family. Under state law, only a spouse of a driver arrested for a suspended license violation may go into the appeals process.The one place on South Whidbey where a driver caught with a suspended license may not lose his or her car is in Langley. According to Police Chief Bob Herzberg, the city does not have an ordinance that requires a car impound when a driver is caught with a suspended license, nor is the police department required to follow the state law."

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