Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

AGLO 1974 No. 17 -
Attorney General Slade Gorton


The Quinault Tribal Council is not entitled to an exemption from payment of license fees under the provisions of RCW 46.16.020 for those vehicles owned by the Council and operated by the Tribe for the benefit of persons living within the boundaries of the Quinault Reservation whether Indian or non-Indian.

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                                                                 February 4, 1974

Honorable Jack G. Nelson
Director, Department of Motor Vehicles
Highways-Licenses Building
Olympia, Washington 98504                                                                                                               Cite as:  AGLO 1974 No. 17

Dear Sir:

            By recent letter you have requested our opinion on the following question:

            ". . .  Is the Quinault Tribal Council entitled to an exemption from payment of license fees under the provisions of RCW 46.16.020 for those vehicles owned by the Council and operated by the Tribe for the benefit of persons living within the boundaries of the Quinault Reservation whether Indian or non-Indian?"

            We answer this question in the negative.


            Under the provisions of Public Law 83-280 (67 Stat. 588, 18 U.S.C. 1162, 28 U.S.C. 1360) and RCW 37.12.010, the state of Washington has assumed jurisdiction,interalia, over the operation of motor vehichles ". . . upon the public streets, alleys, roads and highways" of all established Indian reservations in this state.  Therefore, in accordance with RCW 46.16.010, it is unlawful, except as otherwise provided therein or elsewhere in chapter 46.16 RCW, for any person to operate a motor vehicle on those public ways ". . . without first having obtained and having in full force and effect . . . a current state vehicle license."  To obtain and retain this license he generally must pay a license fee, the amount of which is dependent upon the type of vehicle involved.  RCW 46.16.060 ‑ 46.16.125.  In addition, he must pay an annual motor vehicle excise tax of two percent of the fair market value of his vehicle as provided for in RCW 82.44.020.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            As an exception to the foregoing license fee requirement, however ‑ but not, notably, to the licensing requirement itself ‑ RCW 46.16.020 provides that:

            "Any vehicle owned, rented or leased by the state of Washington, or by any county, city, town, school district or other political subdivision of the state of Washington and used exclusively by them, and all vehicles owned or leased with an option to purchase by the United States government, or by the government of foreign countries, or by international bodies to which the United States government is a signatory by treaty, and used exclusively in its or their service shall be exempt from the payment of license fees for the licensing thereof as in this chapter provided:  Provided,however, That such vehicles, except those owned and used exclusively by the United States government and which are identified by clearly exhibited registration numbers or license plates assigned by an instrumentality of that government, shall be registered as prescribed for the license registration of other vehicles and shall display upon the vehicles the vehicle license number plates assigned by the director and except in cases of a foreign government or international body shall pay for such number plates a fee of one dollar:  Provided, further, That no vehicle license or license number plates shall be issued to any such vehicle under the provisions of this section for the transportation of school children unless and until such vehicle shall have been first personally inspected by the director or his duly authorized representative."

            Your question is whether this license fee exemption is applicable to those motor vehicles which are owned by the governing body of the Quinault Indian Tribe ‑ i.e., its tribal council ‑ and operated by it within the boundaries of the Quinault Reservation in Grays Harbor County.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            In addressing ourselves to this issue we must bear in mind at the outset that the fees which are here involved are in the nature of a tax,1/ so as to cause the provisions of RCW 46.16.020,supra, to be subject to the principle that tax exemption statutes are to be strictly construed in favor of the taxing power and against the claimant to an exemption.  Crown Zellerbach v. State, 45 Wn.2d 749, 757, 278 P.2d 305 (1954).  Because of this we may not extend the terms of this statute by implication to include the Quinault Tribal Council among the categories of public bodies enumerated therein but, instead, we must deny the applicability of the fee exemption which is thereby granted to this body in the absence of a clear basis for finding an entitlement thereto in the plain words of the statute.

            Unquestionably, the Quinault Tribal Council is a governmental entity.  See,State v. Bertrand, 61 Wn.2d 333, 378 P.2d 427 (1963); andQuinault Tribe of Indians v. Gallagher, 368 F.2d 648 (9th Cir. 1966), cert. den. 387 U.S. 907 (1967).  A motor vehicle owned by it is not, however, thereby one which is owned by "the state of Washington or . . . any county, city, town, school district or other political subdivision of the state of Washington."  See, e.g., RCW 43.31A.070 in which the legislature, in indicating its intent to include Indian tribes along with political subdivisions for the purposes of eligibility for financial aid under the Economic Assistance Act of 1972, made express reference to them, saying:

            "The authority is authorized to make direct grants and/or loans to political subdivisions of the stateand Indian tribes recognized as such by the federal government, for the purpose of assisting such organizations in financing the cost of public facilities, including the cost of acquisition and development of land and improvements for public facilities, as well as the acquisition, construction, rehabilitation, alteration, expansion, or improvement of such facilities."  (Emphasis supplied.)

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            Nor is such a motor vehicle thereby owned by the United States government.  See,Mescalero Apache Tribe v. Jones,      U.S.     , 36 L.Ed. 2d 114, 93 S.Ct.     (1973), in which the United States Supreme Court recently rejected a contention that such federally recognized Indian tribes as the Quinaults are, thereby, federal instrumentalities so as to be immune from state taxation under the federal Constitutuion2/ by virtue of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.3/

             And, finally, such a motor vehicle is not, by reason of its ownership by the Quinault Tribal Council, thereby owned by the government of a foreign country, or by an international body to which the United States government is a signatory by treaty.  While it is, of course, true that the United States government is a signatory to a treaty with the Quinault Tribe ‑ as was discussed at some length in AGO 1970 No. 27 [[to Jonathan Whetzel, State Representative on December 14, 1970]], copy enclosed, this tribe, whatever else it may be, does not constitute an "international body" so as to bring that last clause of RCW 46.16.020,supra, here into play.4/

             [[Orig. Op. Page 5]]

            In view of all of the foregoing, then, we believe that your question must be answered in the negative.  The Quinault Indian Tribal Council is not entitled to a license fee exemption for any of its motor vehicles by virtue of RCW 46.16.020,supra.

            We trust the foregoing will be of some assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Deputy Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/See, AGLO 1974 No. 8 [[to James P. Kuehnle, State Representative on January 18, 1974 an Informal Opinion AIR-74508]].

2/See, McCullouch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 4 L.Ed. 579 (1819).

3/This decision thus not only supports our answer to your immediate question relative to the possibility of a state license fee exemption but, in addition, it signifies the absence of any federal exemption by way of the constitutional doctrine of implied immunity, as well.  As far as the possibility of a federal statutory exemption is concerned, our research has disclosed no existing act of Congress which would give rise to such an exemption.

4/This exception for international bodies having treaties with the United States government was, we note, added by a 1965 amendment contained in § 1, chapter 106, Laws of 1965, Ex. Sess.   There is no indication whatsoever in the legislative history of this amendment that it was in any way intended to cover treaty Indian tribes.