Washington Supreme Court Holds Impound Statute Unconstitutional

The Washington State Constitution recognizes a privacy right and prohibits disturbance of that privacy without authority of law.  When a driver is arrested for driving under the influence, the vehicle must be impounded pursuant to RCW 46.55.360.  A defendant recently challenged the impound statute as a violation of the Washington State Constitution.

The defendant was stopped for speeding.  According to the court opinion, the officer smelled alcohol on the defendant’s breath.  The defendant declined a field sobriety test and the officer arrested him for suspicion of driving while under the influence of intoxicants.  The officer impounded the defendant’s jeep without considering any reasonable alternatives.

The officer performed an inventory search of the vehicle and found items he believed were associated with drug dealing.  Cocaine was found on the defendant in a search incident to arrest.  The defendant was charged with DUI and possession with intent to deliver controlled substances.

He moved to suppress evidence from the inventory search, arguing it was not a lawful seizure under the Washington Constitution. The defendant presented evidence that the cost for a brief impound can be more than $1000, and that impounds can result in the loss of the vehicle.  The trial court granted the suppression motion and found the impound statute was unconstitutional.   The parties agreed to immediate review and the case went to the Washington Supreme Court without going to trial.

Article 1, section 7 of the Washington Constitution provides that no one “shall be disturbed in his private affairs . . . without authority of law.” In determining whether this section has been violated, the court first considers whether the action is a disturbance of the defendant’s private affairs.  If it is, the court then considers “whether authority of law justifies the intrusion.” The Washington Supreme Court noted that “authority of law” generally requires a valid warrant, unless the state can show the seizure meets one of the warrant exceptions.

The Washington Supreme Court noted that Washington law recognizes “the privacy interest of individuals and objects in automobiles.” City of Seattle v. Mesiani. Impounding a vehicle is a seizure in Washington.  Therefore, impounding a vehicle disturbs the defendant’s private affairs.

The state argued the seizure was lawful because the statute gives the required authority of law.  Washington case law, however, has held that there is authority of law to impound a vehicle after the driver’s arrest if there is probable cause the vehicle contains evidence of a crime or if there is “reasonable and proper justification for such impoundment.” State v. Houser. Reasonableness depends on the specific circumstances and an officer must consider reasonable alternatives. The officer did not consider reasonable alternatives, so the Washington Supreme Court found the impound unlawful.

The Washington Supreme Court found the statute waives the requirement for probable cause or a warrant exception.  Furthermore, without probable cause, there must be consideration of reasonable alternatives before a vehicle is impounded.  In this case, there was no probable cause and the officer did not consider reasonable alternatives.  The Washington Supreme Court therefore found the seizure unlawful and affirmed the trial court’s order.

This case shows that police officers cannot automatically impound a vehicle just because the driver has been arrested.  If you face criminal charges and your vehicle was improperly impounded, an experienced Washington criminal defense attorney will fight for your rights.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to set up your appointment.

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