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AGO 1959 No. 16 - February 24, 1959
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John J. O'Connell | 1957-1968 | Attorney General of Washington

OFFICES AND OFFICERS ‑- COUNTY ‑- SHERIFF ‑- DUTIES WITH REGARD TO ABANDONED MOTOR VEHICLES.

Motor vehicles left in storage by other than registered owner in excess of fifteen days is abandoned and must be turned over to the sheriff.  Garage owner failing to do so is guilty of a misdemeanor under RCW 46.64.050 and forfeits his claim for storage.

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                                                                February 24, 1959

Honorable John G. McCutcheon
Prosecuting Attorney
Pierce County
Tacoma, Washington                                                                                                    Cite as:  AGO 59-60 No. 16

Attention:  !ttNels B. Nelson, Jr.,Chief Criminal Deputy

Dear Sir:

            You have requested our opinion on a problem we paraphrase as follows:

            When is a vehicle left in storage considered abandoned, and what procedure must be followed in the subsequent handling of the vehicle?

            The answer to your question will be found in the analysis.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            RCW 46.52.110 provides in part as follows:

            "The sheriff of every county, the chief of police of each city and town, members of the Washington state patrol, and constables shall report to the chief of the Washington state patrol all vehicles found abandoned on a public highway or at any other place and the same shall be taken into the custody of the sheriff of the county wherein found abandoned  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] . . . Personal notice that such vehicle has been found abandoned shall be forwarded to the registered and legal owners of the vehicle if any record of registered or legal owner thereof exists in this state.  In the event there appears to be a registered or legal ownership thereof in another state the sheriff shall send notice thereof to the official having cognizance of issuing legal or registered ownerships in such other state.  If, at the expiration of forty-five days from the date of mailing such notices, the vehicle remains unclaimed and has not been reported as a stolen vehicle, then it may be sold at public auction . . .

            "Any vehicle left in a garage for storage more than fifteen days where it has not been left by the registered owner under a contract of storage and has not during such period been removed by the person leaving it shall be an abandoned vehicle and shall be delivered to the sheriff of the county with notice of such fact.  Any garage keeper failing to report such fact to the sheriff and tender delivery to him of the vehicle at the end of fifteen days shall thereby forfeit any claims for the storage of the vehicle.  All vehicles considered abandoned by being left in a garage shall be disposed of in accordance with the procedure prescribed above for abandoned vehicles."

            It is our opinion that this statute requires that all vehicles left in a garage for fifteen daysmust be delivered to the sheriff as abandoned, except where the person who left the vehicle was the registered owner.  Any garage owner who fails to deliver an abandoned vehicle to the sheriff is guilty of a misdemeanor, as provided for in RCW 46.64.050, and in addition forfeits his claim for storage of the vehicle.  We construe the last paragraph of RCW 46.52.110, supra, to mean that a garage owner does not lose his lien (if he has one) when he turns over a vehicle to the sheriff at the end of fifteen days.  Upon sale by the sheriff, the lien of the garage owner has priority if he tendered delivery of the vehicle to the sheriff "at the end of fifteen days."

            We conclude also that the only time a garage owner can legally sell anabandoned vehicle pursuant to chapter 60.60 RCW, is when the registered owner has left the car in storageunder a contract of storage.

            If an owner appears and claims the vehicle before sale by the sheriff, the garage owner has a lien if the vehicle was stored by the owner (not  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] necessarily the registered owner) or an authorized agent.  In other words, a garage owner does not have a lien for storage where the vehicle was stolen and placed in storage.  In addition, when the sheriff takes a vehicle into custody and places it in the hands of a garage for storage and safekeeping, the garage owner does not thereby acquire a lien on the vehicle as he is not acting as a public custodian, but only as custodian of property for the sheriff.  The only claim he has in such a case is against the sheriff on his contract for acting as custodian.

            In instances where the vehicle left in storage is in fact a stolen vehicle, the general rule is that the purchaser at a sheriff's sale acquires no title.  31 Am.Jur., Judicial Sales, § 187;Merinella v. Swartz, 123 Wash. 521, 212 Pac. 1052.  However, if no stolen car report has been made by the owner, the sheriff will treat the car as an abandoned vehicle, and, by complying with the requirements of RCW 46.52.110, may pass good title.  See opinions of the Attorney General to the director of licenses dated May 27, 1943, and September 21, 1944, copies of which are enclosed.

            At the present time, a sheriff has no statutory authority to sell a stolen or abandoned vehicle if he is unable to determine the individual who is the registered or legal owner since the statute merely provides for sale (a) upon personal notice to the registered or legal owner "if any record of registered or legal owner thereof exists in this state"; or (b) upon notice to the official having cognizance of issuing legal or registered ownerships in other states "in the event there appears to be a registered or legal ownership thereof" in such other state.  In our present biennial report to the governor and to the legislature, we have discussed this problem and suggested legislation to remedy such situations.

            We trust the foregoing will be of help to you.

Very truly yours,

JOHN J. O'CONNELL
Attorney General

CHARLES I. McCLURE
Assistant Attorney General

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