"I'M AFRAID I MUST accept some of the blame for this misery and pain," says Roberto Maestas, glancing around the Seattle City Council chambers for the whereabouts of City Attorney Mark Sidran. "He was one of my students at Franklin High School. I'm the one who recommended he go to law school and become a lawyer. And now, here's what we have."
Applause and laughter rippled through the audience. But although they laughed, they knew what Sidran has created is no joke: a year-old vehicle-impound program that tows the cars of people who are caught driving with a suspended license. Drivers can lose their licenses for many reasons: driving drunk or recklessly or for merely failing to pay traffic ticket fines. Critics of the law contend it is unfair to tow cars because of unpaid fines.
They also point out the law comes down hardest on a disproportionate number of the city's nonwhite drivers. Of 5,000 cars impounded in 1999, an estimated 60 percent were driven by minorities—who make up just a quarter of Seattle's total population. More than 40 percent of drivers whose cars were towed were African Americans, who are 10 percent of the city's residents. Some faced staggering tow, storage, and ticketing fees—up to $1,000—and many were unable to reclaim their cars, which were subsequently auctioned on the cheap. The new figures back a Seattle Weekly report last year revealing that minorities almost instantly became the law's victims ("A sad lot," SW, 4/13/99).
While the Towed While Black findings point up the unfair application if not the outright racism of such a law, Sidran is unimpressed. "The concept behind impounding was a very simple notion," Sidran told council members at a recent hearing. "We believe that it's cheaper and more effective to lock up cars than to lock up people."
On the other hand, locked-up people aren't subsequently sold at auction. But his detractors say Sidran was right about one thing: It's a simple notion. Critics charge that the section of the law relating to unpaid tickets is based on the flawed premise that people who can pay fines are somehow safer drivers than those who can't. The theory is, says public defender Lisa Daugaard, "yesterday you were a terrible threat to safety. But today we welcome you on the road because you've got a big bank account."
Such remarks bring out the inner child in Sidran. Seated across from Daugaard at a council hearing to discuss amending the impound law, he constantly shook his head as she made her case. "We don't suspend licenses because people get traffic infractions, we suspend them because [people] don't pay fines," said Daugaard.
Sidran smirked, leaned back, and dramatically rolled his eyes for all to see. Theoretically the legal adviser to the council, Sidran instead has been an unabashed salesman for this law. He claims the law has brought a 27 percent reduction in suspended license prosecutions and related jailings are down 17 percent—figures Daugaard and others dispute.
"There's a whole other group of poor people," argues Sidran, "who work hard, play by the rules, and have driver's licenses and insurance, who seem to get lost in this debate."
Daugaard contends the law deprives poor people of the one thing that might help them out of their jam: the car that gets them to work. Fremont community activist Tony Lee heartily agrees. He says 60 percent of those who have left state welfare roles rely on their own car or someone else's to get to work (where they make an average $7 an hour). A traffic infraction, says Lee, sometimes means "a parent is forced to choose between feeding children or paying a traffic fine." Adds Hayward Evans, director of the antipoverty Central Area Motivation Program: "The number one asset of a low-income person is what? They don't own a house. It's their car."
Sometimes a car is also the house. "I had all my clothes, all my belongings in my car," a 60-year-old widow told council members. When it was impounded after she had lost her license for failing to pay an old ticket, "I was left standing on the street with 12 cents and nowhere to go." Now the handicapped woman says she takes two buses and walks five blocks to get to work. Is she the driver Sidran says we must get off the road? "In 44 years of driving," she notes, "I never had an accident." Adds Daugaard: "It's our belief that people with suspended licenses have fewer accidents because they're probably trying to drive more safely and not get caught."
Courts are also now finding legal problems with the towing law, which allows a police officer to act as a judge in the streets, taking cars even when the unlicensed driver is not the owner. In effect it imposes a penalty without a crime being proved, without the accused being allowed assistance of counsel, and while requiring the defendant to prove his or her innocence.
Several Seattle municipal judges have ruled the city has no legal authority to impound cars if drivers are not arrested (and nine out of ten aren't) and that impounding is an excessive fine on the owner if he or she is not driving. "Judges have substantial problems with the way [the law is] being applied," says Daugaard.
The City Council eventually will decide if the law should be amended. Daugaard and her allies hope the council will no longer tow the cars of drivers whose licenses were suspended for failing to pay tickets while continuing to impound cars operated by those suspended for drunk or reckless driving.
Roberto Maestas, for one, believes the council is about to give his former pupil a civics lesson. "We have the votes," says a confident Maestas. "I know it's going out."