August 13, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 33

News

Councilmembers put the brakes on law that would accelerate vehicle impoundment

By Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

A car that hadn’t been moved in 72 hours in South Seattle received a warning sticker. The city of Seattle may soon use similar stickers to notify owners with four unpaid parking tickets that the car may receive a boot.

Photo by Rosette Royale

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Some 28,000 people have four or more parking tickets in Seattle, totaling $21 million owed to the city.

After four tickets are issued to the same vehicle, city parking enforcement officials send a letter to the vehicle’s owner warning that the vehicle may be booted if the tickets aren’t paid. To “boot” a vehicle, parking enforcement officers put a large, yellow, metal clamp on a wheel, immobilizing it.

Parking enforcement can boot a vehicle after notifying an owner by mail. But about 2,000 vehicle owners a year avoid getting a boot because the city, lacking an address for the vehicle’s owner, is unable to send a warning letter.

Now the Seattle City Council is considering a change to the law that would allow those 2,000 people, most of whom have out-of state license plates, to be notified via a sticker on the vehicle’s window.

The law would also penalize people who forcibly remove a boot on their car by not allowing them to enter into a payment plan for the unpaid tickets; they have to pay the full amount to get their cars back.

Advocates for homeless people say the original law and the proposed revision are flawed and harmful to people who live in their vehicles. Almost 1,000 homeless people live in their vehicles, according to the One Night Count conducted by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness in January.

Bill Kirlin-Hackett, executive director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, said the proposed “scofflaw” ordinance fails to distinguish between a housed person with a job and a homeless person living in a car, who may not be able to pay off tickets and could be forced outside if city parking enforcement tows the car.

“That is not just or compassionate or even smart,” Kirlin-Hackett said to the council’s Public Safety Committee July 30.

In effect since 2011, Seattle’s scofflaw ordinance has been generating millions each year for the city’s general fund.

In the first year of the program, the city collected almost $3 million in unpaid parking tickets. More than half paid their tickets before they received a boot on their car.

Once the boot is installed, vehicle owners have just a few days to pay their tickets or set up a payment plan before the city tows the vehicle.

The Interfaith Task Force and the Ballard Task Force on Homelessness and Hunger took on the work of helping people who live in their cars avoid getting the boot. The organizations raised money to help people pay their tickets and joined homeless people at the Seattle Municipal Court to ask judges for leniency.

Since 2011, the groups have helped more than 150 people manage their parking tickets, but the organization has no reliable funding source and continues to get requests from people worried about losing their vehicles.

“It’s something that’s happening every week,” Kirlin-Hackett said.

The city council agreed to examine the law further, and delayed passing the revisions to the scofflaw ordinance until September.

“I strongly agree with some of the points that have been raised about criminalizing poverty, and I want to make sure that this policy doesn’t do that,” said Councilmember Bruce Harrell.

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said the city needs to expand its Road to Housing program, which finds parking places off the street for homeless people to stay.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant said it’s wrong to use parking enforcement as a revenue source for the city. She said the city should not use the term “scofflaw” because it is pejorative and that the law should help homeless people.

Kirlin-Hackett said the city is using a flawed approach to parking enforcement and ought to revise it.

Now that the Seattle City Council is delaying a decision, members of the two task forces are proposing legislation that would change the existing law.

It would also allow indigent people to receive partial or full forgiveness of their parking tickets and avoid losing their vehicles to impoundment.

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