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AGO 1961 No. 28 - May 08, 1961
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John J. O'Connell | 1957-1968 | Attorney General of Washington

MOTOR VEHICLES ‑- LICENSES ‑- AUTHORITY OF EMERGENCY TOW CAR TO LIFT AND HAUL TOWED VEHICLE ON PUBLIC HIGHWAYS

The payment of the $5.00 license fee provided for in RCW 46.16.080 does not permit an emergency tow car to lift and haul any portion of a towed vehicle over and along the public highways.

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                                                                    May 8, 1961

Honorable Louise S. Taylor
Director, Department of Licenses
General Administration Building
Olympia, Washington

                                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 61-62 No. 28

Dear Mrs. Taylor:

            By letter previously acknowledged you requested the opinion of this office on a question which we paraphrase as follows:

            Does payment of the $5.00 license fee provided in RCW 46.16.080 permit an emergency tow car, sometimes referred to as "wrecker," to lift and haul any portion of a towed vehicle over and along the public highways?

            We answer your question in the negative.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            RCW 46.16.080 provides as follows:

            "In lieu of the additional fee provided in RCW 46.16.070 or 46.16.072 there shall be collected a fee of five dollars on any motor truck, truck tractor, trailer or semitrailer used only for the purpose of transporting any well drilling machine, air compressor, rock crusher, conveyor, hoist, wrecker, donkey engine, cook house, tool house, bunk house, or similar machine or structure attached to or made a part of such motor truck, trailer, or semitrailer:  Provided, That no additional fee shall be collected  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] under this section or under RCW 46.16.070 or 46.16.072 on any house trailer."

            At the outset we note that our supreme court has consistently stated that where a statute is plain, unambiguous, and well understood according to its natural and ordinary meaning, the statute itself furnishes a rule of construction beyond which a court cannot go.  Seattle v. Ross, 54 Wn. (2d) 655, 344 P. (2d) 216 (1959); Parkhurst v. Everett, 51 Wn. (2d) 292, 318 P. (2d) 327 (1957).  Stated another way, there is no room for construction if a statute is unambiguous)Driscoll v. Bremerton, 48 Wn. (2d) 95, 291 P. (2d) 642 (1955);Public Hosp. Dist. v. Taxpayers, 44 Wn. (2d) 623, 269 P. (2d) 594 (1954);State ex rel. Evans v. Brotherhood Etc., 41 Wn. (2d) 133, 247 P. (2d) 787 (1952)) because there is nothing for the court to interpret.  In re Baker's Estate, 49 Wn. (2d) 609, 304 P. (2d) 1051 (1956).

            As we view the pertinent statute above quoted, it is unambiguous and not open to construction or interpretation.  It applies only to a "motor truck, truck tractor, trailer or semitrailer" for which the gross weight fees (provided in RCW 46.16.070 and 46.16.072) would otherwise be applicable.  Two conditions must first be met before the statute applies, to-wit:

            (1) The vehicle must be"used only for the purpose of transporting any well drilling machine, air compressor, rock crusher, conveyor, hoist,wrecker, donkey engine, cook house, tool house, bunk house, or similar machine or structure . . ." (Emphasis supplied) and

            (2) The machine or structure transported must be "attached to or made a part of such motor truck, trailer, or semitrailer: . . ."

            It appears obvious that when a vehicle‑-whether it be called a "wrecker" or an "emergency tow car"‑-lifts a portion of another vehicle and proceeds to tow it, the towing vehicle cannot be said to be "used only for the purpose of transporting any . . . wrecker" unless, of course, the towed vehicle could be termed a "wrecker."  Moreover, even if the towed vehicle were a "wrecker" the second qualification of RCW 46.16.080 would not be met because the towed vehicle would not be "attached to or made a part of" the towing vehicle in any permanent sense.

            We think it obvious that RCW 46.16.080 was intended to apply to vehicles having machinery or structures of fixed weight attached  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] thereto, so as to permit the transportation of such machinery or structure only.  We do not believe that the statute either authorizes, or was designed to authorize, the transportation of vehicles or other commodities upon a vehicle equipped with such machinery or structures notwithstanding the fact that such equipment could be or is customarily used for that purpose.

            Moreover, assuming that the statute is ambiguous, recourse to legislative history of RCW 46.16.080 fails to reflect any indication of legislative intention that the ordinary gross weight fees would not be applicable to trucks equipped as "wreckers" while transporting other vehicles upon the highways.

            It must be noted that RCW 46.16.080 provides an exemption, or at least a partial exemption, from the fees which would be required pursuant to RCW 46.16.070 and 46.16.072.  As such it is an exemption from taxation and must be strictly construed in favor of the right to tax.  Standard Oil Co. v. King County, 180 Wash. 631, 41 P. (2d) 156 (1935); Norwegian Lutheran Church v. Wooster, 176 Wash. 581, 30 P. (2d) 381 (1934).  See, also:Boeing Aircraft Co. v. R.F.C., 25 Wn. (2d) 652, 171 P. (2d) 838, 168 A.L.R. 539 (1946), appeal dismissed, sub nom. Boeing Aircraft Co. v. King County, 67 S.Ct. 972, 330 U.S. 803, 91 L.Ed. 1262 (1946).

            Accordingly, while it does not appear that RCW 46.16.080 is ambiguous, even if it is assumed to be so, the result is the same.  Trucks or truck tractors, equipped with hoisting apparatus, fall within the purview of RCW 46.16.080 whilenot transporting additional cargo.  If the operator of such vehicle elects to raise a portion of another vehicle and transport the same over the public highways, thereby increasing the weight on the towing truck, RCW 46.16.080 is inapplicable and the vehicle should be licensed by payment of appropriate gross weight fees as provided in RCW 46.16.070.

            While we are not unmindful of the emergent character of the operation in which wreckers or tow cars are usually engaged, such consideration is one of leniency properly addressed to the legislature and of which this office should not be persuaded or permitted to indulge in the absence of some clear legislative direction.

            We trust the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

JOHN J. O'CONNELL
Attorney General

ROBERT J. HALL
Assistant Attorney General

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