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My car was towed in Seattle for an alleged parking violation. I paid $350 to get it back and then went to court and had the violation dismissed. The police officer who wrote the ticket and called for the tow did not show up for the court hearing, there was no evidence of a violation, and I testified that I was careful to park legally (and indeed I was conscious of the "No Parking" sign referring to one spot about 50 feet away from where I parked). So, I believe the officer made some mistake.

Now, I'd rather not sue the government to get my $350 back (you could simply say that I prefer not to have tax-payers, including myself, pay for it), so intend to serve and sue the officer directly. I know where to find him and actually will first give him a demand note to pay me the $350, but I assume that note will get me nothing.

So, what's the most likely result of my approach? Is there precedent for taking an officer to court for a small claims case like this? Am I likely to have the case dismissed and be forced to refile against SPD?

(Please don't let this distract from my question, but my philosophy is that people hide behind groups/governments/companies too often, and I'd like to push society to take more personal responsibility for their own actions. I have no problem with the police, my problem is that one guy made a very careless mistake. I feel like he won't see the consequences for his actions if I make my case against the entire SPD. Whether it's to reduce taxes or to push my philosophy, I know I'm struggling here just for a Pyrrhic victory...so I'm 99% sure I will simply abandon this and sue SPD in the end.)

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    You can't sue an officer for doing his job. He is just going to say you parked illegally. – Putvi Apr 22 at 21:21
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    As @Putvi notes in his answer, a suit against the officer would be futile. There is a very good chance that you wouldn't prevail against anyone to get your $350 back either. The default rule is that if you are charged with something and the charges don't hold up, that the government owes you nothing. – ohwilleke Apr 22 at 22:13
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    What @ohwilleke said is right, but in IL at least they try to work with you on the fees if you are found innocent. Call the towing place and file a motion in the case you won to ask that the city refund the fee since you won. I'm not saying they have to refund it, but some places are nice. It's probably different in huge town like Seattle though. – Putvi Apr 22 at 22:17
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    Good heavens, you must be unfamiliar with the recent history of police brutality in Seattle! In Seattle the police can pull over, yell at a deaf person minding their own business walking down the street, shoot them dead in a matter of seconds, and are 100% immune from consequences and lawsuits. They're allowed to get away literally with random murders; you think you can take a police officer to court over a parking violation? – Eric Lippert Apr 23 at 17:22
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    Slightly off topic but why aren't you automatically refunded the £350 fine if you've been found not to have parked illegally? Why does this require a lawsuit and not just asking for it back. Seems like a weird law – Richard Tingle Apr 23 at 21:32
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No, you can not sue him for this. A police officer has to have done something wrong for you to sue, not just his job.

I know you are saying the ticket was not warranted, but even if you are right, he can say he made a mistake and thought you were too far over and he is in the clear unless you can show he intentionally gave you a ticket when it wasn't deserved.

This article explains how and why an officer is normally immune from lawsuits.

  • Ok, I hope SPD deducts $350 from his pay then, assuming I win against SPD. I'll mark this as the answer, but give others a chance to answer for a few days first. – bobuhito Apr 22 at 22:01
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    I get that it sucks, but they aren't going to take from his pay. File a motion in the case you won to get the money back. – Putvi Apr 22 at 22:03
  • For the record, I was told I needed to open a whole new case at district court to get a hearing for the $350, which itself requires an $83 filing fee. I wish there were a simpler "file a motion" option like you said. I'll update here in a month or two with the result of the new case. – bobuhito Apr 22 at 22:34
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    You have to file a new case if you want to sue, yes, but I just meant the court you won your case in has the power to reimburse you, like they do for legal fees etc. – Putvi Apr 22 at 22:46
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    @bobuhito Deducting pay from people for making mistakes is very illegal (not that that stops cops a lot of the time anyway). – Azor Ahai Apr 23 at 20:46
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Even if you had grounds for a lawsuit, you could not make it come out of the officer’s pocket. Under Chapter 4.64 of the Seattle Code, the City of Seattle is generally required to defend and indemnify city employees who are sued for doing their job. If you sue a police officer, the city pays his lawyer; if you win or if the city decides your claim is legitimate, the city pays whatever damages there were. The provision does not cover “claims and/or litigation arising from any dishonest, fraudulent, criminal or malicious acts or omissions of officers or employees of the City,” but that requires a lot more than “I wasn’t parked illegally,” and in any event you cannot force that issue -— only the city can. That’s between the officer and the city, and has nothing to do with you.

This provision is pretty common in employment, including government employment. If I’m working for you and am acting in good faith, doing things for your benefit under your instructions, it’s only fair for you to shoulder the costs if I mess up. When it comes to government employees (whose job often makes people very angry at them), indemnification is extremely common. If police officers faced the risk of financial ruin for innocent mistakes, it’d be very hard to find anyone willing to do the job.

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    This is the second time I read something to the likes of not being able to sue someone for just doing his job. Thing is, he didn't do his job. He fined someone completely random and innocent person in a case where all the information was available to prevent it. That's not his job. – pipe Apr 23 at 9:26
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    @pipe The point is that the officer didn't deliberately go out that day having decided to wrongly charge some motorists with parking violations. That would be a crime. He screwed up and made a mistake about what was legal and illegal. That's not a crime, it's a mistake. If this happened in an environment where you paid the $350 to the officer on the spot, in cash, and got no official paperwork about the incident, then yes the officer would quite likely be guilty of fraud, extortion, or whatever. But that's not what actually happened. – alephzero Apr 23 at 9:39
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    @pipe Dozens of traffic and parking violations are dismissed daily because the cop didn't show up to court. Heck, it's standard advice to always challenge a ticket in case the officer doesn't show up. It doesn't mean they didn't do it, it only means the cop thought it wasn't worth his time to come in and testify. – pboss3010 Apr 23 at 11:57
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    @pipe His job is to, among other things, enforce parking violations. He was doing that job. He was doing it badly, but he was doing it. – David Richerby Apr 23 at 12:28
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    @alephzero, How are you sure it was just a mistake? – CramerTV Apr 24 at 2:25
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I'll go ahead and add in a federal level legal principle on top of all of the local and state laws that stand in your way: qualified immunity.

In short, you'd have to prove that the officer was plainly incompetent. Police officers who have accidentally shot people they were intending to tase have been granted immunity under the various statutes being mentioned here, so I'm fairly confident a parking ticket will not meet the burden of proof required to consider the officer as an individual rather than an entity of the government.

However, any good lawyer will tell you that nothing is certain in court, so you might be able to get a high priced lawyer to help you form the argument in just the right way. And after about 15 minutes, that $350 you're trying to reclaim will be his ;)

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You could sue the officer. You could even make it a federal suit under Section 1983 (see the text of the law). However, to prevail, you would have to show that the officer knew that you were doing nothing illegal, or that any reasonable officer would have known this. If a reasonable, even an ordinarily careless, officer might well have believed that you were parked illegally, you will probably lose.

You would also have to show that your right was "well established" to defeat the qualified immunity that police officers generally have.

As to your larger goal, you should know that in many localities, even if you bring such a suit and win, the municipality, or the police union, may well reimburse the officer. So the burden may fall on the taxpayers in any case, whatever you do.

You could complain to the department. They might chose to impose some penalty on the officer. But they might well do nothing at all. In many localities you would not even be informed of the result.

If you sue the department as a whole, you may still need to establish at least the negligence of the officer who wrote the ticket. You may need to name the officer specifically. My understanding is that a sec 1983 suit must always name specific individuals. Suits under other laws follow different rules, and may vary by state or locality.

  • Well, I think I could prove "any reasonable officer would have known this", so you give me a little hope...but not enough yet to pursue the personal lawsuit. – bobuhito Apr 22 at 22:38
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    @bobuhito I don't know the facts here, but remember that "reasonable" can include "careless" as long as the person is not 'grossly negligent". You will want to consult a lawyer before going far with this, I think.. Or you could just request refund of the towing fee, as a first step. You could always sue if you are turned down. – David Siegel Apr 22 at 22:44
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The biggest issue with your situation is that the police didn't get your $350. The towing company did. So even if you can get the police to admit they made a mistake, they don't have your money, and can't give it back. They will tell you to take it up with the towing company.

The towing company isn't going to give you your money back, because towing companies don't work that way. You could sue them, but you aren't likely to win, because even if you could prove that the towing company knew there was no violation, and therefore no reason to tow your car, they will say they were following the order of a police officer, and there is probably some ordinance that says that a direct order from a police officer trumps everything else. So the towing company will point to the police and say, take it up with them.

You're caught in an infinite loop.

The only way to break the loop is to prove fraud or conspiracy. That the towing company towed your legally parked car with the intention of extorting a ransom for it. But they'll just say the police ordered them to do it. No case there. So you need to prove that the police intentionally ordered the car towed without cause. That's going to be really tough to do. Your best bet is to find some sort of link between the police officer and the towing company. A kickback of some kind, but good luck with that. Otherwise, it's just a mistake, and officers are allowed to make mistakes.

Another thing to consider is that some part of the $350 the towing company charged goes to the city, as part of the towing services contract. I looked it up, and there is a "city administrative fee" of $35 that I think you should get back from the city. It's not much, but it's better than nothing.

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    The police could acknowledge that the 350 towing fee was a result of their error, and choose to refund it. Whether they will do that out of good will I can't say. Whether a court would compel them to is unclear, but probably only if it was proved that the offivcer's action was not just a mistake, but unreasonable or malicious. That would be hard to prove. – David Siegel Apr 24 at 18:29
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    @DavidSiegel: Sue them both under joint liability in one court action. No infinite loop. If you can get a jury trial you might even win. – Joshua Apr 24 at 18:53
  • @Joshua The towing company would likely move to have the case against it dismissed on the ground that it simply followed an apparently valid police order to tow, that it performed the service, and that it is not liable for any mistake by the police officer. It would probably win that dismissal. Joint suit would have added nothing except legal fees. – David Siegel Apr 24 at 19:24
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    So, assume that theoretically it could be proved that the car was not parked illegally - perhaps a picture, a GPS log, or something similar. Is it legally possible to retrieve the entire $350? Sounds like the answer is no... – Scot Apr 25 at 4:31
  • @Scot The bottom line is that the towing company did nothing wrong. They performed a service for which they deserve to get paid, so you won't get your money back from them. The police screwed up, but they aren't set up to refund money for mistakes, so you won't get your money back from them. I think you do have a valid claim against the city, and there is probably a process to file a claim. In fact, here it is: seattle.gov/filing-a-damage-claim. Give up trying to punish the police or the officer. That will get you nowhere. – Mohair Apr 25 at 16:31
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Most of the answers are being too specific, vicarious liability would apply to the officer just as it does with any other employer. The employer is responsible for the employees incompetence, not the employee.

As for your philosophical objections to the officer not paying, that is in fact why vicarious liability is so common and applies in this case. Because holding the officer liable would produce the opposite of what you are imagining. In this case the government got your $350, and you want to be reimbursed by the officer. That doesn’t do anything except encourage the employer to hire more incompetent people. They don’t even have to pay back the money they got! The most logical thing to do would be to find a balance between maximum income (so incompetent as to give a ticket to a moving vehicle for a parking violation) and public outrage that gets managers (politicians) fired.

An employer basically has one recourse for actions by their employees that result in liability—-fire the offender so they don’t do it again. If they weren’t on the hook for liability, they could instead always shift the blame to the employee. There’s always going to be an employee involved somewhere, that did something that 20-20 hindsight says was the wrong thing to do. Yeah, the company doesn’t owe anything. Let’s do it again, but charge more.

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There are laws in place in some states and cities that prevent a towing company from holding your vehicle hostage if you don't pay the tow fee. I know this doesn't help you right now, but I post as an answer to bring awareness to anyone else who may find themselves in a similar situation.

In your case (assuming Seattle or Washington state has a similar law) you could have retrieved your vehicle from impound without being forced to pay the tow fee. You'd be billed for the tow, of course, but if you could have subsequently showed the (alleged) illegal parking offense was dismissed, you might have been able to dispute the $350 charge legally.

As I said, this is not a universal policy, so it won't apply to every person or in every situation. Do some local research so you have the facts if you should be improperly towed.

protected by feetwet Apr 25 at 14:24

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