Can My Car Get Impounded for Not Having Insurance?

Tire boot on vehicle
••• William Andrew/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

There are lots of good reasons to carry valid, up-to-date auto insurance. For example, if you cause a car crash, insurance can help prevent financial ruin. Even if you aren't worried about the costs of an accident, the law probably requires you to maintain insurance (unless you live in New Hampshire).

States impose penalties on drivers who fail to maintain the minimum level of insurance. Impounding vehicles is one of the most effective penalities, in the sense that it gets uninsured drivers off the road immediately.

So yes, your car can be impounded for not having insurance. However, whether or not your car will be impounded depends on a variety of factors, including where you live.

Penalties Will Vary by State

No two states treat uninsured drivers identically. There’s a variety of combinations of laws and circumstances under which your car may be impounded. In some states, impoundment is a possible penalty for first-time offenders, while other states let drivers off easier the first time they are caught driving without insurance.

Even the strictest states give officials a little wiggle room with punishments. If you plan to drive without valid insurance (which is a bad idea), know the laws in your area, but also know that you may be granted some flexibility. It's important to be cooperative with police officers and anyone else involved in your punishment so that you receive a lighter penalty.

Exceptions to the Insurance Requirements

Two states effectively give drivers the choice of whether or not to maintain car insurance. New Hampshire doesn't have a specific law requiring car insurance. However, drivers with blemishes on their driving record may be required to get insurance.

In Virginia, drivers who don't want insurance can choose to pay an "uninsured fee" instead. The $500 fee applies to each uninsured vehicle, and it's paid in addition to normal registration fees.

Police Officers May Decide Whether You Get Towed

You might not have to deal with the consequences of uninsured driving until you're caught violating another traffic law. An officer will likely ask for proof of insurance, even if you're stopped for a minor infraction like failing to signal or driving with a broken taillight. If you can't provide an insurance card, you could be confronted with the possibility of having your car towed and impounded.

While less common, you could get pulled over strictly for lacking insurance. An officer may run a check your tags, even if you haven't done anything wrong. Some jurisdictions also use automated plate-reading devices that will notify authorities of uninsured drivers.

For uninsured drivers, how they were caught is less important than the potential penalties. In most states, officers have some leeway in deciding whether to fine you, impound your vehicle, or simply let you off with a warning.

For example, if you’ve been stopped strictly for uninsured driving, and you are just a couple of blocks from your house, you may be sent on your way with a ticket as long as you promise to go directly home. On the other hand, if you were pulled over for going 50 miles per hour in a school zone, and you're also caught driving uninsured, you may find yourself walking home. Many of the most severe penalties are reserved for DUIs, so if you're an uninsured driver who gets caught driving drunk, it's a good bet that your car will be sent to the impoundment yard.

Not all officers have leeway with these laws. For example, uninsured drivers involved in a crash in New York will lose their license and registration for at least a year.

Proof of Insurance Prevents Impoundment

Drivers are usually required to carry proof of insurance (such as a card or certificate) whenever they operate a vehicle. Failure to present such proof when it's requested by an officer can, in some cases, result in your car’s impoundment—even if you have valid insurance at the time.

However, digital advancements make physical proof of insurance less important. Many officers can run your plates through a system that automatically checks for things like insurance coverage. Drivers can also use phone apps from insurance companies to keep digital proof of insurance on them at all times.

How to Retrieve Your Impounded Car

Getting your car back after its been impounded will almost certainly come with fees, not to mention the hassle of tracking down your car. Furthermore, the fees may charge by the day, so the overall costs of retrieving your car can exponentially increase.

However, if you don’t have car insurance, you probably won't be able to get your car back. You've got to get covered as soon as possible; the impoundment fees will continue to accrue as you attempt to find an insurance policy that fits your needs.

To make matters worse, many insurance companies consider those who previously drove without insurance "high-risk drivers," and that means you can expect to pay higher premiums.

The Bottom Line

The easiest way to avoid impoundment is to maintain insurance coverage. If your coverage lapses, don't drive the car until you restore it. Uninsured drivers may get lucky and avoid impoundment, but the longer they stay on the road without insurance, the higher their chances of facing penalties—including expensive fees, impoundment, and even the loss of license.