Spokane Lawyer’s Fight Pays Off For Innocent Man

SUNDAY, MARCH 19, 1995

Harvard-educated Charlie Dorn taught college law and served the public as a District Court judge.

He’s a respected expert on constitutional issues and has won plenty of big cases with his keen legal mind.

But an unlikely highlight of Dorn’s long and illustrious career came the other day, when the Spokane attorney took the city of Spokane to the cleaners.

For $156.60.

“I’m going to take the check and hang it on the wall,” said an exuberant Dorn, chuckling and exhaling gray plumes of cigarette smoke outside the Public Safety Building.

Siding with Dorn, District Court Commissioner Vance Peterson ordered the city to reimburse the towing bill for a young soldier named David Forsyth.

The 1987 Mustang that Forsyth borrowed from an Army buddy was impounded after a routine traffic stop.

Few high-priced attorneys would spar with a city over such a piddling amount.

Dorn, however, represented Forsyth for little more than the satisfaction of righting a wrong.

Considering the facts, he thought the city should have decency enough to return Forsyth’s towing and impound fees. When a city lawyer wouldn’t bite, Dorn decided to see the case through no matter what it cost in time.

“I thought we could resolve the damn thing,” said Dorn. “Instead, we end up fighting over nonsense.”

You don’t have to own a law degree to sympathize with Forsyth. He is the obvious victim of a chain reaction of bureaucratic bungling and bad luck.

The bungling came last August, when the Department of Licensing failed to record Forsyth’s payment of a minor speeding ticket.

The bad luck struck the night of March 4.

Forsyth is an Army corporal stationed in Fort Lewis, near Tacoma. He came to Spokane on a three-day pass to say goodbye to his parents. Forsyth will soon be shipped out to Alaska for the next three years.

He was driving home from shopping with two friends when police pulled the Mustang over.

A burned-out headlight. No big deal.

Then a computer check revealed that Forsyth’s license was suspended due to the unpaid ticket.

Forsyth tried to explain he paid his debt. What officer hasn’t heard that old song and dance before?

Police followed their policy and seized the car.

Forsyth was told the registered owner would have to come all the way from Fort Lewis to claim the automobile.

Visions of AWOL danced through the soldier’s mind. In a panic, Forsyth called his sergeant, who extended his leave.

Forsyth spent the next five days marooned, trying to straighten out this mess. He finally got the Mustang back on March 9, thanks to Dorn and an emergency hearing before Peterson.

He could have taken his lumps and gone away. Instead, the corporal returned from Fort Lewis on Thursday to fight for the tow bill.

After all the time and expense, “I wasn’t getting anything out of it,” said Forsyth. “But the system should be accountable.”

In court Dorn quoted case law and state codes as passionately as if he were part of the O.J. Simpson defense team.

He eloquently argued against a “flawed system” where “a series of mistakes” can come down upon the head of an innocent guy like Cpl. Forsyth.

“He has paid a tremendous price for the officers’ inability to exercise discretion,” said Dorn of his client. “… When this mistake is compounded, who is to pay for it?”

Commissioner Peterson decided the city should pay. He determined that the police never properly advised Forsyth of his options, which is specifically required by law.

Dorn won’t make any friends down at City Hall for pushing this, but sometimes you have to make a point. “If nothing else,” the lawyer says, blowing some more smoke, “it’s to show that the system has flaws.”

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