Every state and municipality has laws that govern the safe operation of private motor vehicles on the public streets and highways. If you, as the driver of a vehicle, violate any of those laws the police have the authority to seize your car pending your court date. If your car is impounded, you may be held responsible for any fees or other charges resulting from the impoundment before you can regain possession of your vehicle. This page will address some of the more commonly-asked questions regarding police impound operations and your legal rights if your vehicle winds up on a police lot.
Before the police impound a vehicle, they must have a valid reason for doing so. In general, such reasons may include:
- A vehicle that is being operated by an intoxicated or impaired driver
- A vehicle that is being operated by a driver whose license is suspended or has been revoked
- The driver is being arrested on other charges
- The vehicle was damaged after an accident and is not drivable or is considered to be unsafe to drive
- The vehicle is being operated with expired registration, expired license plates, or without proof of mandatory auto insurance
- The vehicle is illegally parked or parked in a manner that may hinder public safety
- The vehicle is considered to have been abandoned on or near a public street or highway, or at the request of a private property owner who suspects the vehicle was abandoned on his or her property
- The vehicle was involved in, or is suspected of being involved in, a crime
- There is probable cause to suspect that the vehicle may contain evidence of a crime
There are, of course, many other circumstances that can lead to the impounding of your personal vehicle but the above-listed reasons account for a majority of all vehicle impounds. In the following sections of this page we will look at some of the more important issues regarding police impound lots.
In most states an arrest for Driving While Intoxicated (DUI) / Driving While Impaired (DWI) will result in a mandatory car impound. Some state laws provide that a DUI /DWI charge will also lead to an automatic suspension of your driver’s license for up to 60 days or until your case goes before a judge. In either case, getting your car out of a police lot will likely be more difficult and more expensive.
Every state now has some form of an ignition interlock law. Interlocks after a DUI / DWI are mandatory in 21 states, while other states leave the interlock question to the discretion of the court. If your state has a mandatory interlock law, you will be required to present evidence of an interlock installation before you driving privilege is restored. In practicality, this means that you must pay all storage fees before your car can be towed to a business that is certified to install these devices. Since interlocks are expensive in their own right, and vehicle towing charges are almost as high, the total out-of-your-own-pocket can easily exceed $1,000!
The police will usually seize a car after an accident only if the driver is arrested. Otherwise, they may summon a tow truck from their list of accident clean-up services. In those cases, you will be responsible for any fees and tow lot storage charges that must be paid before your vehicle will be released to you. In most cases, if you have had previous dealing with a vehicle towing service or a repair shop the police will contact that business for you to arrange the removal of your vehicle.
Once the decision is made to seize a vehicle, many people will ask for it to be stored “at a car impound near me,” a “vehicle impound near me,” or some other location that is relatively close to their home. Unfortunately, you have no right to choose where your impounded vehicle will be stored. Most larger police departments either own a police lot, use a city impound lot, or lease a lot from private businesses. This allows the police easy access to impounded vehicles if needed for investigations or similar police business.
In most police impound lots all vehicles are stored outdoors unless they are being processed for evidence by the forensic lab. In general, any damages that occur due to weather or are due factors beyond human control do not create a liability on the police department. Damages that are considered “man-made,” such as vandalism or fire, will usually be the responsibility of the police or the owner of an impound lot being operated for the police.
When the police impound a private vehicle, their employer (local, county, or state police agency) may become liable for any damages that may occur from the time the vehicle is removed from the street until it is released from the police impound lot. If the vehicle is vandalized or is damaged while it is impounded, the police department may be liable for the costs of repair.
If your car was damaged while it was stored on a police lot, you should immediately bring that damage to the attention of the lot operator and demand an explanation of how the damage occurred. If you are not given a satisfactory explanation, or the lot operator says “take it or leave it,” inform the lot operator that you refuse to take possession of your vehicle until you have talked with a lawyer. You should then document the damages with pictures taken with your cell phone or digital camera so you can present them to your attorney should you have to sue the police or the lot owner to recover the costs of repairs to your vehicle.
Police impound and tow lot charges can be expensive, and many people simply cannot afford to pay such high fees. In most cases, if you fail to pay the police lot or city impound fees the police department and/or the city may request a court for permission to sell your car at a public auction. If that is the case, you must be notified in advance that your vehicle will be sold unless it is claimed by you before a certain date. If and when your car is sold at auction, only the amount of impound fees can be claimed by the impounding agency. Should your vehicle be sold for an amount that exceeds the unpaid fees and charges, any money in excess of that amount must be returned to you.
On the other hand, if you are looking for a bargain price on a used car, purchasing an impounded vehicle can save you a considerable amount. Auctions of impounded cars and other impounded vehicles are held several times per year in most cities and are usually advertised in the “Legal Notices” section of the local newspaper. These ads will give short descriptions of each car or other vehicle that will be offered for sale and will also provide other information for prospective buyers such as whether cash will be accepted or if a person check and bank letter of credit will be necessary.
If you are considering purchasing a police impound vehicle, you should be aware that these vehicles are sold “as is” to the highest bidder and that no warranty will be in effect after purchase. There could be future issues with obtaining a clear title to these vehicles as well. If you are aware of these risks, and others, purchasing a police impound vehicle can be a great bargain.
When a car is impounded by the police, you are still responsible for any car payments or other financial arrangements you made with a bank or auto finance company. As far as the law is concerned, any finance payments that are owed by you are your responsibility. If your car is sold at auction, you are still responsible for all outstanding payments that remain on your vehicle purchase contract. In some cases, the bank or auto finance company will bid on your vehicle when it comes up for auction and, if they submit the winning bid, they may sell the vehicle back to you but with higher monthly payments and finance charges. The key point that you must remember is that you are still obligated to make those monthly payments, even if you have no car.
Should you find yourself facing such a situation, your best option is to contact the title-holder (your bank or finance company) of your car or vehicle to see what options are available to you.
In some cases the police will seize a car for the purpose of gathering evidence. Should this be case with your vehicle, you should be aware of the fact that the constitution’s protection against unreasonable search extends to your private vehicle. The police may conduct a visual inspection of your car for any potential evidence, but are restrained to objects that are clearly visible to the unaided eye. Unless the police can convince a judge that they have probable cause to suspect that a car contains evidence of a crime, your vehicle cannot be searched without your permission. Even if the police have a search warrant, they are not allowed to excessively damage your vehicle except when it is deemed necessary. In those circumstances where damage is said to be necessary, the police may still be held liable for any repair expenses that arise from that damage.
Vehicle seizure by law enforcement has been a point of controversy between law enforcement agencies and civil libertarians for some time. Since this issue is still being decided at the federal and state court levels, the answer could depend on whether were charged with violating a federal law or a state law.
In federal court cases, it is usually the case that only the court can order the seizure or forfeiture on any personal assets such as a vehicle and then only if the court can be convinced that the property to be seized was used in a criminal enterprise or was purchased with funds generated from such enterprise. At the federal level, any seizure of assets that takes place without a court order is usually considered to be a violation of the “Due Process” clause. The courts have ruled that due process only applies to federal law and the actions of federal law enforcement agencies.
At the state court level, and depending on the individual states’ laws, some state criminal codes allow an “immediate seizure” of your vehicle if a law enforcement officer 1) has a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed, 2) if controlled substances or illegal firearms are found during a preliminary search, or 3) a suspect may flee the court’s jurisdiction. In states having such immediate seizure laws, it is strongly recommended that you contact an attorney as soon as possible after you learn of the proposed vehicle seizure / forfeiture.
This page has provided an introduction to the police impound process as well as the duties of police lot personnel regarding the safe storage of your vehicle. We have also seen that there may be significant legal issues involved with police impound cases, particularly in cases involving searches for evidence in impounded vehicles or vehicle seizures.
Anyone who is forced to deal with any of the issues discussed on this page should consider contacting a local attorney with experience in vehicle seizure cases. Only a local attorney will be familiar with police impound cases in your area and this familiarity can work to your advantage in your dealings with the police and the courts.