OLYMPIA— Starting today, drivers can expect to have their vehicles towed when police officers arrest them on suspicion of DUI.
A new state law requiring officers to tow and impound drunken drivers’ vehicles for 12 hours went into effect at midnight.
“This is about making sure that impaired drivers don’t return to their cars and drive again before they’ve sobered up,” State Patrol Chief John Batiste said in a statement issued by the WSP. “This isn’t about trying to punish someone for driving drunk. If they’re found guilty, that will become the court’s job.”
Legislators intended to make roads safer when they drafted the law establishing the mandatory 12-hour vehicle holding period earlier this year. WSP Sgt. JJ Gundermann said it will keep impaired drivers away from the wheel after they have been arrested.
“Our main concern is to get the impaired drivers off the road and make sure that they don’t re-offend within that 12-hour period,” Gundermann said.
The law bars officers from letting a sober friend, relative or any other passenger take over the car for the inebriated driver at the scene of a DUI arrest. However, there are a few exceptions enabling someone to retrieve the vehicle from the impound lot before the end of the 12-hour holding period.
If the vehicle belongs to someone else, such as a business, the owner can pick it up. This option could come into play with rental cars, noted WSP Trooper Ryan Tanner.
Registered co-owners can also get the vehicle at the tow company.
Additionally, commercial and farm transport vehicles can be released at the site of the arrest. However, the law makes this exception for no other types of vehicles. Legal owners, other than the arrested person, can pick them up.
Towing rates depend on the size of the vehicle being towed, said WSP spokesman Dan Coon.
Coon noted that a number of jails throughout the state lack holding space for those arrested for DUI.
“Different counties handle DUI arrests differently,” he said. “Some of them will take them if they have room. Some of them don’t have room.”
Following processing, those arrested are typically released or allowed to take a taxi home if they avoid spending the night in jail. Prior to today, courts did not allow officers to tow and impound vehicles without considering alternatives or getting the driver’s permission.
Under the previous law, an impaired driver who was allowed to return to her vehicle before she was sober continued driving and seriously injured another person in a collision in 2007. Afterward, the person she hit won nearly $5 million in court against Whatcom County and the WSP.
“They realized that we were in kind of a no-win situation with DUI arrests as to what happens to the vehicles afterwards,” Tanner said.
The new law solves that problem, though, and makes roads safer, Tanner said.