Vehicles at the Lincoln Towing auction site in North Seattle were sold with the previous owners’ belongings inside, potentially contravening Washington state law that governs the sale of impounded vehicles.
Several vehicles for sale at the June 3 auction contained possessions like books or other small items. Others clearly had more tales to tell, like a green van, its hood marred with bullet holes, orange Seattle Police Department evidence tape still stuck to its window.
On the front passenger’s seat, multi-colored casino chips were strewn across a search warrant.
Two vehicles sold at auction that morning were nonfunctional recreational vehicles (RVs) that had been abandoned. The interiors were in disarray: flies buzzing around rotting food, a gaming system, artwork, an acrylic paint set in a varnished wood box. One, as previously reported, had a half-full bottle of prescription anti-inflammatories, possibly identifying the former owner.
When described to Bill Kirlin-Hackett, who, alongside Jean Darsie, has worked with people living in their vehicles for years, the response was immediate.
“That sounds illegal,” Kirlin-Hackett said.
The Revised Code of Washington (RCW) says that personal belongings in vehicles should be returned to the owner when they present a driver’s license or other “sufficient identification.” If the original owner cannot or does not retrieve these items — which can happen for a number of reasons — they should be “turned over to the local law enforcement agency” that impounded the vehicle.
The money from the sales should be put toward the costs or expenses of the sale or expenses for the storage of personal property. The “balance, if any, shall be paid into the police pension funds” if such a fund exists. If it does not, the money goes to a city current expense fund.
The possessions cannot be “sold at auction to fulfill a lien against the vehicle,” the RCW states.
What’s clear is that the items in the vehicles were not turned over to local law enforcement, and were included with the sale of the vehicle. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to say what those items were worth, as the items in the interior of the vehicles were spilled throughout, possibly a result of the tow itself.
The codes cited here — RCW 46.55.090, 63.32 and 63.40, for those interested — conflict with other relevant regulations, wrote Julie Moore, spokesperson for the Administrative and Financial Services Department (fas), in an email. fas is a city department that contracts with Lincoln Towing.
“In the meantime, the City has implemented an effort to inspect any RV impounded by the City before it is sold at auction to assess it for personal belongings,” Moore wrote.
Staff trained to do encampment cleanups will conduct the inspections, she wrote.
“To be clear, Lincoln does make efforts to notify owners of impounded vehicles and has a process for people to redeem personal property from within, even if they are not redeeming the vehicle,” Moore wrote.
Getting personal property back presents its own challenges.
Not all people experiencing homelessness have identification, and without other documentation, it can be difficult to apply for state-issued ID. RV owners might be more likely to have a driver’s license, but it could also be locked inside the towed vehicle.
And, if the new owner bought the vehicle in an informal setting — from a friend, off the internet, etc. — it might not be registered in the former owner’s name, meaning the provision of identification will not necessarily give them access to their stuff.
These represent some of many hurdles that face vehicle residents, who live in a gray area — they aren’t considered housed, but they remain outside of the purview of traditional outreach services that cater to people sleeping rough or in emergency shelters.
People swept from tent encampments are supposed to receive two weeks’ notice in most cases, as well as offers of services from outreach teams. They also have a guarantee that their personal possessions will be stored for 60 days. City rules dictate that homeless people can reclaim their belongings without ID, a change from past practice, although some who have been caught in the system say that it’s not much help.
There is no formal outreach to vehicle residents, and their cars are treated like any other, towed after they are considered abandoned, parked illegally or violate 72-hour parking limits. Many have structural issues and cannot move. They end up in an auction lot.
Lincoln Towing did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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