Anyone who has been arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) in the State of Washington knows that police and prosecutors are tough on DUI's. Penalties include jail time, fines and fees, and at the time of arrest the driver's vehicle is automatically impounded. As DUI arrests continue, Washington is on pace to have more cars impounded from drunk drivers than ever.
The law requiring mandatory impound for cars involved in DUI arrests began in July of 2011. Although there are some exceptions, if a driver is arrested for a DUI, their car is towed, and impounded for a mandatory minimum of 12 hours. Friends or family are not even allowed to be called to drive the car away, as they had been before.
With more cars than ever being impounded for DUI arrests, it does not appear to have much of a deterrent effect. However, the intention of the rule is more about keeping the cars off the road, rather than punish the driver, even if the impound fee is a mandatory $180 going to the local tow truck companies.
According to State Patrol, the mandatory impound was to prevent drivers from returning to their cars while still intoxicated and driving home. State Patrol Chief John R. Batiste said this was not intended to be an additional penalty. “This isn't about trying to punish someone for driving drunk. If they're found guilty, that will become the court's job,” Batiste said. He continued, “this is about making sure that impaired drivers don't return to their cars and drive again before they've sobered up.”
State Patrol has reported multiple such incidents of impaired drivers returning to their cars and getting on the road after being released. In one 2007 incident, a driver got back in their car before sobering up, and caused an injury accident. The injured person sued, and won a $5 million suit against Whatcom County and the State Patrol.
Even though the law has been in effect for over three years, State Trooper Ryan Suavé says many drivers still do not know about the impound law. “I'd say the majority of the time, they're surprised that they can't get somebody to come pick up their vehicle,” said Trooper Suavé.
Prior to the change, courts actually required police to consider alternatives to impounding the vehicle or get the driver's permission before sending the car to the impound lot. And because police faced a lack of jail space, the driver is released to a responsible adult or allowed to take a taxi home. Now, even after they get home, they will have to wait out the 12 hours before they can pick up their car.
The statewide law applied to DUI arrests made on state, county or city roads. However, there are some limited exceptions to the mandatory 12 hour vehicle hold, including if the vehicle is owned by someone else, the owner can claim the car; a co-owner may claim the car at the tow lot; and commercial or farm transport vehicles can be claimed by a legal owner.