Washington supreme court rules law impounding cars in DUI cases unconstitutional

The Washington Supreme Court handed down a ruling Thursday that strikes down a law allowing police officers to automatically impound cars in DUI cases.

The ruling came from a Grant County case in 2018. In that case, Joel Villela was pulled over for speeding. The sergeant smelled alcohol on his breath and arrested him on suspicion of DUI. The sergeant also impounded his jeep, citing RCW 46.55.360. That law states that the officer does not have to consider whether there’s a reasonable alternative to impounding the vehicle. In this case, the court says Villela’s vehicle could have been released to one of his passengers.

After seizing his vehicle, the sergeant searched it and found baggies, digital scales and cash, all of which the officer believed was related to drug dealing. Villela had cocaine as well and he was also charged with possession and intent to deliver a controlled substance.

Villela asked the trial court to suppress what was found, saying the search was illegal. According to the court documents, the Grant County judge indicated that this issue had come up several times in his court room. He granted the motion to suppress the evidence that was found; the parties in the case put the trial on hold and asked for an immediate review.

The justices turned to a two-step analysis to determine if Vilella’s rights to be free from illegal search and seizure were violated.

The Court said a vehicle may be impounded if there is probable cause that it contains evidence of a crime or when there is “reasonable and proper justification for such impoundment.”

The justices concluded that the police officers “must consider reasonable alternatives” and an impound is only lawful if no alternatives exist. In this case, the officer did not make that judgment and the impound was unlawful. Thus, what was seized because of the impound can’t be used at trial.

The justices concluded that the statute that allows for the impound is unconsitutional as well because “it authorizes a disturbance of private affairs regardless of whether authority of law exists.”

You can read the full opinion at this link.