Justice Department attorneys have filed a lawsuit against a Tampa, Fla., towing company, alleging the company illegally auctioned off a Marine sergeant’s car while she was deployed to Okinawa.
The company, Target Recovery Towing, Inc. and Target Recovery & Transport, Inc., is accused of violating federal law by auctioning off the 2011 Nissan Versa belonging to Marine Sgt. Jennifer Eunjung Ko, without first getting a court order, according to the complaint filed Aug. 18 in federal court in Tampa. The actions were in violation of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, the complaint alleges.
And although Ko, whose last name is now Wilbur, no longer had possession of the car, she still was responsible for the car payments, and continued making those monthly loan payments to her lender. She was in Okinawa for about two years, from February, 2017 until February, 2019. In June, 2020, she left the Marine Corps.
“Imagine returning home after honorably serving your country only to find that your sole means of transportation and its contents are gone and lost to you forever as a result of a towing company’s callous disregard of the laws,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, in an announcement of the lawsuit. “The Justice Department is committed to protecting the rights of the men and women in our Armed Forces, and putting a stop to these unlawful business practices.”
The lawsuit was filed the same day Justice Department officials filed a lawsuit against a moving company for allegedly illegally auctioning off a service member’s family heirlooms and other possessions.
Under the SCRA, a court must review and approve a company’s enforcement of a storage lien of a military member’s property during, or within 90 days after a period of service. This allows a judge to consider the factors involved, and possibly delay the enforcement of the storage lien or adjust the amount of money the service member owes to the towing company.
In early 2017, before Ko left for deployment with the 9th Engineer Support Battalion for the 3rd Marine Logistics Group at Camp Hansen in Okinawa, she left her 2011 Nissan Versa with her sister in Florida, who parked the car in the Panther Trace community in Hillsborough County, according to the complaint. In her car, Ko stored a surfing long board, some clothing, and a bin with documents with personally identifiable information, including some military employment documents.
On March 23, 2018, Target Recovery towed Ko’s car to a tow yard.
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On May 1, 2018, Target Recovery sent a sale notice to Ko by certified mail, saying they planned to auction off the Nissan on May 18, 2018 to enforce their lien for towing and storage charges. The company’s records show that the sale notice was “tendered to [a] military agent” at Camp Pendleton before it was returned marked “addressee unknown,” according to the lawsuit.
On May 18, 2018, they did auction off the car, “despite having ample evidence that Sgt. Ko was an active duty service member,” according to the lawsuit.
In addition to the Camp Pendleton address, there were other indications, such as at least one military decal on the car, and the military papers inside the car.
The lawsuit resulted from a referral to the Justice Department from the Marine Corps.
Aaron Watkins, owner of Target Recovery and Towing, said the Marine’s sister “knew where the vehicle was. She called us in reference to the charges for the vehicle, and she never said anything to us about the vehicle being military.
“I give back [vehicles belonging to] military, police, firefighters all the time. We didn’t know. If [the sister] had told us [that it belonged to a military member], obviously we wouldn’t have disposed of the vehicle,” he said, in an interview with Military Times.
The apartment complex employees “tagged the vehicle, and called us and asked us to remove it,” Watkins said.
There is no requirement under law for the service member to notify the lien holder about his or her military service, the lawsuit states. Those liens include liens for storage, repair or cleaning of the service member or a lien on the property for any other reason.
Instead, it’s the responsibility of the lien holder to find about an individual’s military status. The lawsuit alleges that at the time of the incident, Target Recovery had no written policies concerning compliance with the SCRA, and their procedures didn’t include checking the Defense Department’s free database to determine whether an individual is an SCRA-protected service member.
A complaint filed with the Tampa Better Business Bureau on July 24, 2018, which appears to be from the Marine sergeant, states her Nissan Versa was towed on March 23, 2018 by Target Recovery, and then sold, and that she hadn’t been contacted about the issue before it was sold. She said the car was worth $16,000, not including the valuables in the car and other costs.
Watkins, owner of Target Recovery, said a government attorney called and asked for $60,000, “which is not fair. The vehicle is not worth even a tenth of that,” he said adding that he is open to settling “in a different manner.”
About Karen Jowers
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book “A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families.” She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.