An Islander facing steep hospital bills and a traffic ticket after a car accident says that because of an unfair practice by the sheriff’s office she’s also facing a bill she can’t afford to retrieve her car from an impound lot in West Seattle.
“I had no idea they were going to take it off-island and it would be this huge ordeal,” said Jude Spaith, who was in a roll-over accident earlier this month. “It just seems wrong.”
Spaith, 49, was driving to the ferry early on the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 16, when her car hit ice near the north end. The Nissan Pathfinder flipped once and landed right-side-up on the side of Vashon Highway, sending Spaith, who was not wearing a seatbelt, into the backseat.
“It was horrifying. I really thought I was going to die,” she said.
An ambulance and sheriff’s deputy arrived on the scene, and as Spaith was being transferred to the ambulance, she called some friends to ask them to get her car, which was totaled. Because it was 6 a.m., her friends didn’t answer, and a deputy told Spaith her car would be towed.
“I was still calling people, and we parted ways,” she said. “They called instantly to have it removed and didn’t even give me a chance to get my friends to come get it.”
Upon her release form Harborview — where Spaith was treated for a fractured bone in her pelvis, a cut requiring stitches and various other bumps and bruises — she learned that her car had been towed to an impound lot in West Seattle and it would take $480 to get it back.
The bill was high, Spaith said, because the towing company charged by the hour to go to Vashon and back and also billed for the ferry ticket. An attempt last week to contest the bill in King County Court was unsuccessful — a judge ruled the sheriff’s office acted within the law.
On Monday Spaith’s Pathfinder still sat at Stan’s Mountain View Towing. It will be there until she either pays the bill or relinquishes the car, and until then, the car will rack up a daily holding fee that by the end of last week sent the bill up to $950. Spaith also received a $135 traffic ticket in the mail for driving too fast for the conditions the morning of her accident.
Spaith said she had originally hoped to sell the car — damaged only on top — for parts, but that may not even cover the impound bill.
“It’s hard enough to live on the island, with the price of food, gas, the ferry. Then they do this to you at the worst moment of your life. I can’t even fathom it,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the King County Sheriff’s Office, however, said the deputies who responded to Spaith’s accident simply followed policy.
When a driver is injured or taken to the hospital and cannot accompany a tow truck to his or her home or a body shop, deputies must have the vehicle impounded, said Sgt. Cindi West. The Vashon deputy couldn’t stay and wait for Spaith’s friends to get the car — someone did come at 8 a.m. to see if the car was still there — because the deputy would have to wait for them to arrive and could be held liable for whatever happened to the car.
“Because the person is going to the hospital, we are responsible for that vehicle,” West said.
Vashon cars are taken to West Seattle, she said, because there are currently no tow companies on the island that are contracted to handle the county’s impounds.
“We certainly aren’t trying to make things difficult for anybody, but there are reasons these things are in place. It’s to protect the person and to protect ourselves,” West said.
After sharing her experience with others, Spaith has found she’s not alone. Other islanders have faced steep fees after their cars were towed to Seattle.
“I’ve been hearing from a lot of people on the island. It’s a giant racket that has been going on for a while,” she said.
Paul Engels of Engels Repair & Towing said that in the past Engels and other Vashon tow companies have been licensed to take impounds. Since they stopped, he often hears islanders complain about the bills incurred when their cars are towed to Seattle.
However, recently an official from the Washington State Patrol, which certifies impound yards, visited Vashon to talk with tow companies about possible options. Engels is now purchasing new equipment and taking the steps required to legally handle impounds, he said; he hopes to be certified to handle them within the year.
Engels said he figures taking the impounds could bring some business to his Maury Island shop while also helping islanders by keeping their impounded cars on Vashon and keeping their bills low.
“Our impound yard is up to code; we’ve got our impound requirements in the bag, we’re narrowing the gap,” he said.
West said that normally a tow company must be certified through the state patrol as a Registered Tow Truck Operator for two years before King County will contract with them. But because there is a need for a local company on Vashon, the sheriff’s office would waive that requirement, she said.
“We still have to follow our department policy regarding tows to protect all involved, but it would be helpful for all involved if we had a tow company or two we could use on Vashon,” she said.
As for Spaith, she said she was growing increasingly frustrated with the impound lot, which she said keeps changing the amount they say she owes. At one point someone told her she would have to pay $1,200, and then on Monday someone said she could leave the car for just $150. She worries that not settling the issue could ruin her credit.
On Monday, Spaith, frustrated and still in pain from her injuries, was headed to Seattle to try to sort out the situation in person.
“The whole thing is a scam, it’s an absolute scam. … I want to get as far away from it as possible. If it costs me $150 that they don’t deserve, that’s fine,” she said.
A man at Stan’s Mountain View Towing who declined to give his whole name defended the company’s practice, saying that Stan’s has been trying to help Spaith and the different prices given to her were for difference scenarios involving her car.
“We are in accordance with King County police rules; we follow them to a ‘T,’” he said.