DoJ: Tow company illegally sold troops’ cars

doj:-tow-company-illegally-sold-troops’-cars

On Monday, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Dallas, Texas, towing company United Tows LLC for allegedly auctioning five service members’ vehicles in violation of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.

SCRA bans companies from enforcing a storage lien and auctioning service members’ property — most commonly towed vehicles or storage unit contents — without a court order. The law protects active duty service members, reservists on federal active duty orders of more than 30 days, and veterans who have departed service in the last 90 days.

In a complaint filed in the Northern District of Texas, the DoJ alleges that United Tows illegally sold the cars between 2015 and 2018, including that of Airman 1st Class Fassil Mekete in 2017.

Mekete was attending Air Force basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas in fall 2017 when the towing company removed his 1998 Toyota Corolla from a martial arts studio’s parking lot. Before leaving for BMT, the airman received permission from the studio’s owner to leave his car and some personal belongings in the parking lot, since he no longer had a lease in Dallas.

After United towed Mekete’s Corolla, a friend alerted the company that the car’s owner was at military training. After presumably regaining access to his cell phone during graduation week, the airman learned his car was towed. He called the company’s owner, who “did not believe he was a servicemember and [told him] that if he did not claim the vehicle and pay all towing and storage fees, the vehicle would be sold,” according to the DoJ filing.

Mekete had orders to immediately report to technical school at Sheppard Air Force Base near Wichita Falls, Texas upon graduation, so he signed a special power of attorney authorizing his friend to retrieve his personal items from the vehicle. His friend discovered a laptop was missing and that Mekete’s gym bag had been cut open and searched.

United Towing then auctioned Mekete’s vehicle without a court order on Nov. 17, 2017, leaving the airman without a vehicle at his new duty station. The complaint also alleges the company auctioned the vehicles of two other airmen, a soldier and a member of the Coast Guard.

“When members of our military answer the call to serve our country, they should be able to do so without having to worry that their vehicles or property will be auctioned off while they are on duty,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of DoJ’s Civil Rights Division in a media release. “The department is filing this lawsuit to ensure that United Tows provides just compensation to the servicemembers who were harmed[.]”

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Mekete, the airman named in the DoJ’s filing, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reached via phone by Military Times, a United Tows employee declined to comment on the lawsuit and offered contact information for their attorney, James Creedon. “United Tows denies any wrongdoing. We do not think the DoJ has all of the facts. We look forward to having the chance to tell our side of the story,” said Creedon in a phone interview.

The lawsuit is part of a recent spate of SCRA enforcement actions by DoJ. Last week a Tampa, Florida towing company had to pay a $17,500 settlement to a Marine veteran whose car it illegally auctioned. ASAP Towing & Storage, another Florida towing company, also settled a SCRA case for illegal vehicle auctions earlier this month. DOJ also recently filed suit against the City of San Antonio for illegally selling 200 troops’ vehicles from 2011 to 2019.

About

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.

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