The Mason City Council made the right move in delaying action Tuesday on a proposed ordinance that would allow police to impound vehicles for any of 10 violations.
There are questions about the ordinance itself and questions from Police Chief Mike Lashbrook and City Administrator Brent Trout that need to be answered before we head down this path.
The council needs to get this one right, as Councilman Travis Hickey said, after it “kind of mucked through” a different issue that seems to have gone nowhere — one restricting where recreational vehicles could be parked on private property.
At issue is a proposal by Police Officer Duane Kemna, who should be commended for at least bringing the issue to the fore. The proposed ordinance would allow a vehicle to be impounded if the driver uses it:
• While manufacturing, selling and/or delivering illegal drugs, precursors or drug paraphernalia.
• While illegally manufacturing and/or selling or delivering a prescription drug.
• While being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
• While eluding or attempting to elude a police officer.
• While in connection with a crime regardless of whether the vehicle is used to leave the scene.
• While committing a weapons offense.
• While engaged in prostitution.
• While possessing or transporting stolen property.
• While having a suspended, revoked or barred license.
• While driving without proof of insurance.
Violators would have to pay $250 to get their impounded vehicles back.
Several council members expressed concerns about impounding vehicles for misdemeanors such as for driving with lack of insurance. Trout said that offense and driving under suspension are expected to represent 80 percent of the violations that would require impounding.
Previously, Lashbrook said he had a “hard time accepting the concept that we would seize, impound and (potentially) permanently deprive a person of their motor vehicle for a simple misdemeanor violation such as driving under suspension and no insurance.”
We agree that those minor offenses seem out of proportion to the penalty of an additional $250 fee and potentially being without your vehicle for days — or longer.
But even the more serious offenses raise questions of due process and illegal seizure — that the government is taking property without first proving that the driver is guilty, or without recourse if found innocent.
It’s true that the courts have been largely unsympathetic to those constitutional challenges, but that doesn’t mean that Mason City needs to follow further down that road.
Forfeiture of property has become common for drug charges and some other alleged offenses, but if the City Council does approve an ordinance in this direction we would at a minimum want to make sure that a mechanism is in place so an accused who is found not guilty can get his or her vehicle back without a penalty or be reimbursed if the fee was already paid.
Other issues include what happens if someone other than the owner of the vehicle is driving, or how this might affect the banks, car dealers and others who have security interests in vehicles being impounded and possibly abandoned.
The argument, of course, is that the risk of losing your vehicle or having to pay an impound fee will make people think twice before breaking the laws in question. However there is little evidence that impounding vehicles has much deterrent effect. A comprehensive study of a similar law in Seattle found little impact, other than providing another revenue stream to the city.
These are the kinds of issues — and perhaps there will be others — that should be brought up, discussed and ironed out by the City Council.
We remain unconvinced that this law is needed in Mason City.