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What happens if Your Vehicle is Impounded by the Police

Police interaction (traffic stop or incident) resulting in vehicle being impounded.

There are a barrage of factors that come into play when your vehicle is impounded by the police, especially when it is directly involved in a traffic stop or towed for evidentiary purposes. Officers often come into contact with vehicles when they are pulled over during a traffic stop or is involved in a crime. Depending on the circumstances of why your vehicle was impounded will determine how complicated it will be to retrieve it from the tow yard. Some instances will be a matter of a quick payment while others may be a long legal battle. A vehicle being towed for an expired registration will be much easier to navigate than a drug buy resulting in a long term seizure of a vehicle.

Coming back to an empty parking spot - Impounded Vehicle

Coming back to an empty parking spot Impounded Vehicle
Coming back to an empty parking spot - Impounded Vehicle

There are numerous reasons why a vehicle would be impounded by the police. It can be extremely stressful to return to where your car, truck, or SUV was parked and all you see is pavement. Your first instinct may be that you must have parked it somewhere else or better yet, it was stolen! A simple phone call to the police may help you pinpoint what happened to your vehicle as they may have a record of it being towed. If your vehicle has been impounded, the police department of where your vehicle was last seen will have more information on where it was towed and why. Each police department should have a contract or agreements with their local tow companies so that they can limit fees and confusion when dealing with the impounding process. Officers or dispatchers may reach out to you via phone number (if they have it in their system or on white pages) or knock on your last known address to advise you of your vehicle’s status and where it was towed too. They will also be able to assist you with the tow companies phone number to help expedite the process. Below are a list of the more common reasons why your vehicle may have been impounded by the police

Impounded Vehicle for Unlicensed/suspended Operation of a Motor vehicle

After being pulled over by the police, they will check your license, registration, and insurance status to determine if everything is active. If the operator does not have a valid license or it has been suspended/revoked, the officer may have to tow the vehicle. Impounding a vehicle is often the last resort and the operator is usually afforded sufficient options to avoid the tow yard. Below is a list of common opportunities afforded to the operator to avoid impounding the vehicle.

  1. Update your license online with your phone, which will update your vehicle status within minutes, allowing you to drive away. This option does not work with suspended or revoked licenses as the underlining reason for why it was suspended/revoked needs to be addressed first.
  2. If someone else in the vehicle has an active license, or they are able to respond to the scene fairly quickly, then they may take possession of the vehicle.
  3. Depending on the dynamics of the roadway, the officer may allow the vehicle to be legally parked and locked on the side of the roadway to await a licensed driver.
  4. If the operator is not arrested or someone else is present, the officer can also give the operator the option to have the vehicle towed back to a private lot at the expense of the operator via tow truck.
  5. Lastly, impound the vehicle at the request of the officer.

Impounded Vehicle for an Expired registration or no insurance

As mentioned in the unlicensed paragraph, when an officer pulls you over they will check your license, registration and insurance status. Although not all states require vehicles to have insurance, all states require vehicles to be registered. If a vehicle is unregistered, expired, suspended, revoked, or uninsured (depending on the state) they are subject to being impounded. In this scenario they may have several options.

  • Register your registration online with your phone, which will update your vehicle status within minutes, allowing you to drive away. This option does not work with suspended or revoked registrations as the underlining reason for why it was suspended/revoked needs to be addressed first. Also updating your insurance policy may not be an option as it would not update in the system in time.
  • Leave it on private property (requires permission from property owner) and this can include hotel parking lots, shopping malls, friends’ property you were already on. This option requires the vehicle, whether pulled over for a violation or other infraction, to already be on private property or extremely close. This option is at the discretion of the officer.
  • Private Tow from a Tow Company (Typically requiring a Repair Plate) to a private lot.
  • Lastly, impound the vehicle at the request of the officer.

Impounded Vehicle After an Arrested

Impounded Vehicle After an Arrested
Impounded Vehicle After an Arrested

During a traffic stop, the end result may be that the operator was arrested for anything from a simple warrant to narcotics located inside the vehicle. Depending on why the operator was arrested, such as a simple warrant, the defendant may be afforded the same opportunities to avoid the vehicle being impounded as mentioned in the unlicensed portion of the article. There are key differences officers must take into consideration before granting the arrestee those options such as a felony or misdemeanor charge. Some states have laws directed to crimes such as driving/operating under the influence of alcohol/drugs (DUI or OUI) mandating officers tow the vehicle and place a hold for a minimum period before releasing it. This is so the operator doesn’t get bailed out from jail, take possession of their vehicle and drive again. Unfortunately, there are cases of offenders being released on bail, jumping back into the drivers seat while still intoxicated or high and killing someone in a major wreck. There also maybe evidence inside or on the vehicle that has to be taken into consideration before an officer can release the vehicle. 

Impounded Vehicle for Evidentiary Value

There are times in which a vehicle may have evidentiary value either in it or on it. If a vehicle was stolen there may be fingerprints, fibers, or DNA evidence inside or on the vehicle. The offenders may also leave personal items such as cups, hats glasses, or strangely more common receipts from fast food chains thrown on the passenger side floor. Undenounced to them, the receipt will have a timestamp and store number attached, with video of the suspects likely at our fingertips. They may have the vehicle towed to their police department or the tow yard to await a search warrant.

Vehicle Seized by Law Enforcement

These are the most difficult situations to navigate and are often met with a long legal battle. There may be an immobilization order placed on your vehicle, which means that the courts take away your legal right, temporarily or permanently, to retrieve your vehicle. After an immobilization order is placed on your vehicle, the only legal way of retrieving it is through a hearing or at the end of the trial. There are numerous reasons why a vehicle may be seized, but are typically based off drug offenses, major crimes, and fraud.

Vehicle Impounded After an Accident

Impounded Vehicle for Unlicensedsuspended Operation of a Motor vehicle
Vehicle Impounded After an Accident

If your vehicle is involved in an accident and it becomes unsafe to operate then it will need to be towed. The officer will usually allow the owner to decide on towing it to a private lot, such as an autobody shop, or impounded by the officer. Leaving a damaged and/or inoperable vehicle on the side of the road is improper and is not usually allowed.

Impounded Abandoned Vehicle

Many states have regulations on abandoned vehicles that have been left unattended for an extended period of time. Some states have rules such as the 72 hour rule, meaning that if the vehicle is left unattended/unmoved for a minimum of 72 hours and they are unable to get ahold of the owner or someone in control of the vehicle, they may choose to tow the vehicle. If the vehicle is registered to a street or house close by it is often left alone, but becomes more of a factor when they are registered to an outside city, town or state.

Vehicle Impounded in an a Restricted Area

Areas may have parking time limits and restricted parking time frames. If these rules are violated, the vehicle would be subject to a parking ticket and/or being impounded. Sometimes there will be temporary parking restrictions in areas in which there will be construction. Private property owners also have some recourse when it comes to towing a vehicle. If a vehicle is parked on private property or in a business lot which is posted, they can have the vehicle towed off their property. This isn’t something that the police initiate or are really involved with other then being notified by the tow company, but it could be a reason why your vehicle is missing.

Vehicle Impounded for Parking Infraction

Vehicle Impounded for Parking Infraction
Vehicle Impounded for Parking Infraction

Some parking issues can subject the vehicle to be impounded. Vehicles that are causing a traffic hazard such as being parked too close to an intersection or too far away from the edge, may result in your vehicle being impounded. Other issues such as being parked in a handicap spot or in front of a fire hydrant may also warrant the vehicle being towed. Northern states who deal with snow may have vehicles towed for being parked on the wrong side of the street or during a snow emergency.

What should You Do if Your Vehicle has been Impounded by Law Enforcement?

  • Call the police to see if your vehicle has been towed, or to potentially file a stolen motor vehicle report. If the area is new to you, the officer may drive you around the area to see if you maybe just forgot where you had parked the vehicle (happens more frequently then you may think.)
  • If they have a record of your vehicle being impounded, they can give you where your vehicle was towed to and why? You can also inquire about any restrictions on picking up the vehicle or if the police would like to speak with you first. Private tows from businesses/residents also need to be documented through a fax or email to the police department, so if that is the case they will still be able to provide you with the necessary detail to retrieve your vehicle.
  • Call the tow company and determine the
    • location of the tow lot
    • Fee Structure and nightly charges and if they have a payment plan
    • Documents to prove ownership with an active license.
    • Documents to prove vehicle is now actively registered and insured.
    • Condition of vehicle when towed
  • Vehicle Inspection: Before you take possession of your vehicle, make sure that it doesn’t have any new damages or items missing from inside the vehicle. If you see any discrepancies, you can contact the police department and see if they can provide you with the inventory records so that you can compare it to the tow yard.

What happens if I can’t pay my Impound fee, or the vehicle was permanently seized?

What happens if I can’t pay my Impound fee, or the vehicle was permanently seized?
What happens if I can’t pay my Impound fee, or the vehicle was permanently seized?

If you are unable to pay your fees, your vehicle will likely be sold or destroyed. If your vehicle was seized, it may be sold, destroyed or used by law enforcement, normally in an undercover capacity. Each state will have a minimum timeframe (usually several months) before the tow company is allowed to destroy or sell a vehicle. Keep in mind that most courts do require authorities to provide prompt notice of the vehicle and allow for a hearing. If there was late notice, or you received no notice, causing the bill to skyrocket, you may decide to argue your case with the courts in attempts to reduce the total payment. It is also important to note that these tow companies deal with hundreds and thousands of impounded vehicles a year and will likely work with you on a payment to get the vehicle off of their lot.

Conclusion

It is absolutely frustrating when your vehicle has been impounded by law enforcement. Not to mention that the tow yards will charge a towing fee, city fee and on top of that, an overnight fee. To keep the fees from becoming too high, it is important to understand the impounding process and your legal rights. It may be beneficial for you to contact an attorney to better navigate the complex issues that may arise or represent you in a hearing. It is important to immediately address any reason for the tow such as re-registering your vehicle or resolving your license status. The key is to act as quick as possible to help reduce the long term fees that will build up from the constant overnight charges.

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By Branden

Branden is a Police Lieutenant who has investigated numerous crimes. He has written and executed multiple search warrants, conducted various protective sweeps, pat frisks and exit orders. He has been involved in numerous police vehicle chases, fights, disturbances, foot pursuits, suspect/hostage negotiations and felony stops. He is trained with an assortment of weapons. He has spoken with countless victims, witnesses and suspects and is using his experience to better protect our communities and loved ones by sharing his knowledge through his writings.

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