More than two years after her car was towed and illegally auctioned off while she was deployed to Okinawa, Marine veteran Jennifer Wilbur can now shop for a new one thanks to a $17,500 settlement obtained through the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA).
The Justice Department announced Tuesday in a press release that Tampa, Fla. based Target Recovery and Towing must pay the settlement to Wilbur because it failed to obtain a court order legally required for it to auction her 2011 Nissan Versa. Target must also pay a $2,500 fine.
The SCRA explicitly prohibits people or corporations from enforcing a storage lien to dispose of or sell a servicemember’s stored property — such as a towed vehicle or the contents of a storage unit — without a signed order from a judge. This protection covers all active duty servicemembers, reserve component servicemembers on active duty orders of more than 30 days, and veterans who have separated in the last 90 days.
The original complaint filed by DOJ in August says that Wilbur, a sergeant at the time, left her car with her sister in Riverview, Fla. just before her deployment to Okinawa in early 2017. Her Nissan Versa was towed by Target Recovery and Towing on March 23, 2018, and subsequently auctioned on May 18, 2018 to cover towing and storage costs. Wilbur also lost a surfing longboard, clothing, and a storage container containing vital personal documents. Wilbur, who had the last name of Ko at the time, separated from the Marines in June, records show.
The DOJ attorneys explained in the complaint that the towing company ignored several red flags signaling that they should have verified Wilbur’s military status: “[T]he Nissan Versa had at least one military decal, military documents were in the car, and Ko had an address of record at a United States Marine Corps Base and a vehicle loan through Navy Federal Credit Union.”
“This settlement should send a clear message that the Justice Department will not tolerate the illegal taking of servicemembers’ vehicles,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the department’s Civil Rights Division in the press release announcing the settlement. “Servicemembers must be able to count on their country to protect their rights, and we are committed to doing just that.”
The DOJ has pursued several SCRA lawsuits recently, including a similar case that alleges the City of San Antonio illegally towed 200 troops’ vehicles between 2011 and 2019. Another Florida towing company, ASAP Towing & Storage, reached a similar settlement for illegal auctioning of servicemembers’ vehicles earlier this month. Another lawsuit filed in August accused a Massachusetts company of illegally auctioning the contents of a deployed airman’s storage units. In that case, the airman had pre-paid his storage costs for the duration of his deployment to Qatar.
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Aaron Watkins, owner of Target Recovery and Towing, had previously expressed his willingness to settle the case in an August interview with Military Times. He said then that “we didn’t know” that the vehicle had belonged to a servicemember or “obviously we wouldn’t have disposed of [it].” SCRA protections do not require the servicemember to notify lien holders about this status, though. It is the responsibility of the lien holder to verify the owner does not have SCRA protections.
Watkins was not immediately available for comment on the settlement when Military Times tried to reach him via Target Towing and Recovery’s listed phone numbers. The proposed consent order states, “Defendant Target Recovery Towing Inc. neither admits or denies the allegations contained in the United States’ Complaint.”
The company must also develop SCRA compliance procedures, provide SCRA training to its employees, and revamp its record-keeping procedures as part of the settlement.
About Davis Winkie
Davis Winkie is a reporting intern at the Military Times. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, Task & Purpose, VICE, and others. He previously worked as a military historian, and he is a human resources officer in the Army National Guard.