At least some courts are getting it right.
Late last year, the Washington State Supreme Court struck down 2011 state legislation that required the mandatory impound of vehicles when their owners were arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, otherwise known as “Hailey’s Law.”
Back in 2009, a woman was stopped in a parking lot for a minor traffic infraction. When the Washington State Trooper approached her vehicle, he found that she was driving without a valid license, had previous DUI offenses, did not have a required ignition interlock device, and appeared to be impaired. The trooper arrested her and took her in to the Whatcom county jail.
Since there was no third part available at the scene to drive the vehicle and wait for the woman, the officer chose to lock the car and leave. This is typical if the car is in a safe location and not impeding traffic.
At the county jail, the woman took a breath test and that determined her blood alcohol content to be above the legal limit. For unknown reasons, she was not booked into the jail, and the trooper drove the woman back to her residence, gave her back her keys with a warning to not drive again until she was sober. Common practice was to drive suspected DUI drivers to a public place like a restaurant or store to let them sober up. Unfortunately, the officer made a mistake.
After the trooper left, the intoxicated woman called a cab and returned to her car’s location. She attempted to drive her car home but crossed the centerline and crashed into another vehicle. The victim, Hailey Huntley, would spend over a month in the hospital as a result of multiple injuries, including a collapsed lung, dislocated hip, and a fractured right leg. Later, the DUI driver was found to have had a blood alcohol concentration higher than what she had earlier at the jail.
Following the accident, multiple rules changed. Administrators at Whatcom county quickly made it mandatory for DUI arrestees to be jailed, and other steps were set in motion to create laws that would prevent similar accidents from happening in the future.
As a result, Washington’s Mandatory Impound Law went into effect two years after the crash. It reads, “In order to protect public safety and to enforce the state’s laws, it is reasonable and necessary to mandatorily impound the vehicle operated by a person who has been arrested for driving or controlling a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.”
The state legislature expressly stated the purpose of Hailey’s law was to shift the primary purpose for impounding the vehicle of drunk drivers from avoidance of traffic obstructions to the safety of the public. Additionally, it stated that the law was meant to remove the arresting officer’s discretion as to whether the vehicle should be left of impounded.
A 2018 DUI arrest, and subsequent vehicle impound cast doubt on the constitutionality of Hailey’s Law.
Joel Villela was pulled over for speeding, and when asked to take a breathalyzer test after the officer smelled alcohol on his breath. When he refused the test, he was arrested on suspicion of DUI. Although there were other passengers at the time of the arrest, Villela’s vehicle was impounded in accordance with Hailey’s Law. When the car was searched after the impoundment, law enforcement found sandwich bags, digital scales, pipes, and other paraphernalia related to potential drug dealing. Upon a search of his person, the police found cocaine in Villela’s possession. A charge of possession with intent to deliver controlled substances was added to his list of charges.
Villela’s attorney argued that the seizure of Villela’s car was unconstitutional because Hailey’s Law was the only basis for the search of Villela’s vehicle, when the Constitution required a warrant based on probable cause. As a result, he requested that the contents of the search be suppressed as evidence. The trial court agreed, and eventually the State Supreme Court agreed as well.
“The trial court below found that [Hailey’s Law] violates our constitution because it requires what the constitution allows only under limited circumstances. We agree,” the Court stated in its opinion. “Our constitution cannot be amended by statute, and while the legislature can give more protection to constitutional rights through legislation, it cannot use legislation to take that protection away.”
The Constitution, both state and federal, exist to protect individual rights, including the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and Hailey’s law allowed officers to engage in unreasonable searches and seizures. Although it might seem like the easy and “right” thing to do when someone has driven drunk, individual rights can never and should never be ignored in the name of “justice.”