Today the Washington Supreme Court, by way of a unanimous 9-0 en banc decision, struck as unconstitutional the eight year old statute commonly referred to as Hailey’s Law. Enacted in 2011 by the Washington State Legislature, Hailey’s Law required law enforcement to impound personal vehicles when a driver was arrested for suspicion of DUI. No discretion was given to officers even in cases where the vehicle was parked safely off the roadway, on private property, or if a sober person was available to drive the vehicle away. Further, if that driver was also the registered owner, the vehicle would be impounded and not able to be redeemed for a period of twelve hours.
Justice Gonzalez authored the decision in State v. Villela which overturned RCW 46.55.360 on the grounds that the statute violated Article I, Section 7 of our state’s constitution. The opinion reasoned that for the government to perform a search or seizure of private property there must exist a valid warrant or an exception to that warrant requirement. Warrantless seizures are “per se” unreasonable unless one of those narrow exceptions exists. It has been long held that impoundment of a private citizen’s vehicle is a seizure. The Court found unpersuasive the State’s argument that such an exception was created by the legislature in Hailey’s law. It ruled that the state constitution cannot be amended by way of statute.
At the end of the day, law enforcement will still be able to have cars towed after DUI arrests in many, if not most cases. The Villela ruling does not put a complete stop to that. What it does do is provide the police some discretion when determining if a car should be towed. And in cases where a sober driver can move the vehicle or the vehicle is safely parked or on private property, the likelihood of a tow being deemed reasonable or necessary is probably quite slim.
Finally, overturning Hailey’s Law also likely means a return to the day when a post arrest impound can be challenged, with the government having to reimburse the vehicle’s owner for costs associated with unreasonable impounds. For the better part of the last eight years, the automatic nature of the mandatory impound law had prevented that.