Washington

What to do If Your Vehicle Has Been Towed

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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Introduction

State law regulates the towing of vehicles. "Vehicles" means:

  • cars
  • motorcycles, trailers, boats, and other forms of transportation licensed and registered with the Department of Licensing (DoL)

We discuss these laws below.

When can they tow my vehicle?

A registered tow truck company can tow your vehicle after an impound. An impound is a written order allowing the towing company to tow your vehicle. The person wanting your vehicle towed must provide the towing company a signed authorization at the time and place of the impound before the towing company can act. All law enforcement agencies must use the same uniform impoundment authorization and inventory form.

A private impound is when the owner of the property where the vehicle is located requests your vehicle be towed. The towing company and its agents may not sign the impound authorization as the property owner's agent. They may not identify a vehicle for impound without the property owner's authorization.

A towing company may tow your car immediately if:

  • you have left it illegally on private property where someone lives OR

  • you have illegally left it on private non-residential property which has been properly posted. ("Proper posting" means there is a sign giving notice that unauthorized vehicles will be towed. It gives the name and contact information of the towing company.) 

*The towing company may tow your vehicle twenty-four hours after you have illegally left it on private non-residential property, even if there is no posted notice.

A law enforcement officer or public official having jurisdiction over the public property where the vehicle is located may start a public impound. Some examples of when public impound may take place: 

  • You left the vehicle upon or on the side of the public road in a dangerous way

  • You illegally parked the vehicle on the street or in a parking space for people with disabilities without a proper license plate, card or decal

  • You left the vehicle on a highway, and it has been tagged for 24 hours 

  • The vehicle's registration has been expired for 45 days and it is parked on a public street[1]

Your vehicle may also be towed if you are arrested or charged with any of the following:

  • driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol

  • driving without a proper driver's license[2]

  • driving with a suspended or revoked license

In these cases, you should talk to your criminal defense lawyer about the towing. If you are indigent (low-income), you will probably have a lawyer (sometimes called a public defender) assigned to your case.

When your vehicle has been impounded for driving with a suspended or revoked license, your vehicle may be held for up to thirty days at the written direction of the agency ordering the vehicle impounded. If the department's records show that you have been convicted of this violation before within the last five years, the vehicle may be held for up to sixty days. It can be held for ninety days if you have been convicted of two or more past offenses. You must pay all removal, towing and storage fees before you can get your vehicle back. You can still appeal the impoundment.  (RCW 46.55.120)

What happens after the tow truck operator takes my vehicle? (RCW 46.55.100 - 46.55.110)

Immediately afterward: The tow truck operator must notify law enforcement that the towing company has your vehicle.  Within six to twelve hours, law enforcement will give the tow truck operator the name of the last legal and registered owner of the vehicle.

Within twenty-four hours of the impoundment: The tow truck operator must send notification of the towing by first class mail to:

  • The legal and registered owners of the vehicle AND

  • The owners of any personal property in the vehicle which is registered or titled with DoL

This notice will say:

  • The towing company's name and address

  • A twenty-four hour phone number to contact them

  • The name of the person/agency that authorized the tow

  • An explanation of your right to redeem (pay to get back) the vehicle and challenge the validity of the towing in court. Ask the tow truck operator for the form to request a hearing.

If you have not kept the DoL up on your current address, you may not get this impound notice. This is not a defense against owing towing expenses. It is your responsibility to give the DoL your current address.

The towing was proper. Can I get my vehicle back? (RCW 46.55.120)

Yes, if you pay the towing company that has your vehicle the costs of towing and storage. The towing company must keep normal business hours for you:  Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., not counting holidays.

You may pay by personal check if the account is in the state of Washington and you have two pieces of valid ID. If payment is stopped on the check or credit card or if it is returned for insufficient funds, you may be liable for twice the amount of the towing charges, and reasonable attorney's fees and costs.

You may redeem the impounded vehicle if you are

  • the legal owner
  • the registered owner
  • authorized in writing by the registered owner

The towing was improper. Can I challenge it? (RCW 46.55.120)

You can go to a hearing in a District or Municipal Court.

  • District Court hears private impound cases and those public impounds authorized by the state or its agents, such as the State Patrol.

  • Municipal Court hears cases about public impounds carried out by the municipality such as the local police department.

*The notice you get from the towing company will state the name and address of the court where you may ask for a hearing.

You must ask for a hearing in writing within ten days of getting the towing company's notice of the tow, or you will have waived (given up) your right to a hearing. Your hearing request should be on the form the towing company gave you.

You must also usually pay a court filing fee. You may not have to if you can show financial need. Our publication called Filing Fee Waiver has more information. Our packet called Filing a Motion for Waiver of Your Filing Fee has forms and instructions.

Within five days of asking for a hearing, you will get a written notice from the court with your hearing date and time. At the hearing, you and your witnesses, if any, may present evidence as to why the towing of your vehicle was improper.

  • Under state law, towing and storage fees must be posted at the business location of the towing company. The court will not let you challenge the fee amount if it is the same as the posted rates.

At the end of the hearing, the court will determine if the impound and the fees were proper.

  • If the court decides it was proper, you will have to pay the towing, storage and court costs.

  • If the court decides that the towing of your vehicle was improper, you will not have to pay any towing and storage fees. They will have to return all such fees you have already paid. The court will then order that the person or agency authorizing the impoundment owes you for the filing fees paid and reasonable damages for loss of the use of the vehicle.[3]  

If the judge ordered you to pay the charges at the hearing and you do not do so within fifteen days, the judge may also order you to pay the attorney's fees and costs of the tow truck company in enforcing the judgment. If the judge has ordered that you get reimbursement for the charges and it does not happen within fifteen days, you may ask for attorney's fees and costs to enforce the judgment.

Our publication called How to Get Ready for a Hearing or Trial has more information.

I am not going to redeem my vehicle or my personal belongings. I am not going to challenge the towing in court. What will happen to my vehicle and any personal property registered or titled with DoL?

Once the tow truck operator has impounded your vehicle and has it for 120 consecutive hours, they will consider your vehicle and any items of personal property registered or titled with DoL abandoned, unless you have redeemed them or asked for a hearing to challenge the towing's legality.

*"Items of registered or titled personal property" means property such as campers, snowmobiles, jet skis or other vehicles attached to or on the towed vehicle.

The tow truck operator must submit an abandoned vehicle report to DoL once it has had your vehicle for 120 consecutive hours. DoL must provide the operator with owner information within seventy-two hours of getting the report. Within twenty-four hours of getting the owner's contact info (excluding weekends or postal holidays), the operator must send by certified mail, return receipt requested, a notice of custody and sale to the legal and registered owners of the vehicle and registered/titled personal property.

If fifteen days or more days have passed since the operator mailed the notice of custody and sale, and you have not redeemed your vehicle or challenged the legality of the towing, the towing company will sell the vehicle and the registered/titled personal property at a public auction. Any time before the auction, you can still buy back the property by paying the towing and storage fees.

*The towing company has to publish the auction's date and time in the newspaper. If you want to buy anything back, check your newspaper's classified section for the notice.

After they sell the vehicle, you may still owe the towing company if their costs are more than what they got from selling your vehicle. This is called a deficiency. The amount of the "deficiency claim" may not be more than $500, unless law enforcement authorized the impoundment. Our publication called Debtor's Rights: Dealing with Collection Agencies has more information on debt collection.

Will I get a ticket for an abandoned vehicle?

If a vehicle is found to be abandoned, the last registered owner is liable for any towing, storage or other impoundment charges and is guilty of a traffic infraction unless:

  • the vehicle was stolen and you filed a theft report with law enforcement. In that case, you are not guilty of a traffic violation. You are still liable for the charges. OR

  • Someone bought the vehicle from you and you properly filed a record of sale or transfer with the DoL before the date the towing company towed the vehicle. In that case, you are not guilty of a traffic violation. You are not responsible for the towing and disposal costs.

I cannot pay what I owe from the towing of my vehicle. Will I have my license suspended?

Yes. State law says DoL must suspend all your driving privileges until you provide evidence from the court that you have paid all penalties and restitution.
A suspension does not take effect if, before the effective date of the suspension, the court sends DoL a certificate showing you have settled the case. See RCW 46.20.289 and 46.55.105.

What happens to the things I left in the vehicle?

You may always get your personal belongings from your vehicle after it has been towed. "Personal property which is registered or titled with DoL" means other vehicles attached or connected with the towed vehicle and would not be removable. The towing company that has your vehicle must be available during business hours Monday through Friday, excluding holidays, to allow you access to your vehicle. Bring your photo ID.

The towing company may not:

  • use personal belongings within a vehicle to satisfy a lien for storage costs against you

  • sell your things at auction, unless those things are registered or titled with DoL

If you do not claim your stuff, the towing company must give them to the local police. The cops will then send you a notice about your property. They will store it for at least sixty days.

If you have any complaints about registered tow truck operators, call DoL at one of these numbers, depending on your location:

  • Olympia (360) 664-6475

  • Seattle (206) 706-4255

  • Spokane (509) 482-3886

  • Union Gap (also serving Kennewick, Yakima and Coulee Dam) (509) 575-2777

You can find information for other offices on www.dol.wa.gov/vs/dl-loc.htm.

What if I need legal help?

CLEAR is Washington's toll-free, centralized intake, advice and referral service for low-income people seeking free legal assistance with civil legal problems. 

  • Outside King County: Call 1-888-201-1014 weekdays from 9:10 a.m. until 12:25 p.m. CLEAR works with a language line to provide free interpreters as needed to callers. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, call 1-888-201-1014 using your preferred TTY or Video relay service.

  • King County: Call 211 for information and referral to an appropriate legal services provider Monday through Friday from 8:00 am – 6:00 pm. You may also call (206) 461-3200, or the toll-free number, 1-877-211-WASH (9274). 211 works with a language line to provide free interpreters as needed to callers. Deaf and hearing-impaired callers can call 1-800-833-6384 or 711 to get a free relay operator at no cost. They will then connect you with 211. You can also get information on legal service providers in King County through 211's website at www.resourcehouse.com/win211/.

  • Persons 60 and Over: Persons 60 or over may call CLEAR*Sr at 1-888-387-7111, regardless of income.

 

Footnotes:

1. There may be other times, not listed here, when the police may take your vehicle. If you do not see the reason they towed your vehicle here, talk to a lawyer.

2. If your vehicle was impounded for an invalid, revoked or suspended license, the law enforcement officer and the law enforcement agency are not liable for damages if the law enforcement officer had authorized the impoundment in good faith.

3. . If the vehicle was impounded because your license is invalid, revoked or suspended, the law enforcement officer and the law enforcement agency are not liable for damages if the law enforcement officer had authorized the impoundment in good faith.

 

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This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice.
This information is current as of November 2013.

© 2013 Northwest Justice Project. 1-888-201-1014
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and individuals for non-commercial use only.)