Justice Department officials have reached an agreement with a Florida towing company over allegations the company illegally sold or scrapped service members’ vehicles, in violation of federal law.
ASAP Towing & Storage Company in Jacksonville, Fla., is accused of violating the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act by auctioning off or disposing at least 33 vehicles belonging to service members between 2013 and 2020, without first obtaining a court order, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court in Jacksonville on Sept. 10.
Under the proposed agreement, ASAP will pay up to a combined total of $99,500 to compensate service members whose vehicles were auctioned off while they were in military service, as well as a $20,000 civil penalty to the U.S. Treasury. ASAP must also adopt new procedures for determining an individual’s military status before auctioning a vehicle. The company must also obtain a court order or a valid SCRA waiver, before auctioning a service member’s vehicle, according to the proposed settlement agreement, also filed in court Sept. 10.
The agreement is subject to court approval. ASAP neither admits nor denies the allegations in the lawsuit, according to the proposed settlement agreement, also filed in court Sept. 10. Jacksonville, Fla. has the third largest military population in the U.S.
This is the fourth lawsuit filed by Justice attorneys in three weeks regarding allegations of violating troops’ rights under the SCRA by selling off vehicles or other property.
The SCRA prohibits auctioning off or otherwise disposing of vehicles owned by service members without first obtaining a court order. This allows a judge to consider the factors involved, and possibly delay the sale or disposal, or adjust the amount of money the service member owes to the towing company.
According to the court documents, Lt. j.g. Zane Robert Berry informed property managers at his apartment complex that he would be deploying aboard the submarine Florida, and that his 2005 PT Cruiser would be parked in front of his apartment during that time, from late February to early September, 2018.
The car had a parking decal from a South Carolina Navy base, and there was a welcome aboard packet from the submarine left on the passenger’s seat. He left his driver’s license in the glove compartment. At the request of the apartment complex’s property manager, ASAP Towing & Storage towed Berry’s car on April 2, 2018, because it had a flat tire. ASAP auctioned off Berry’s car on June 29, 2018, along with contents that included several tools and some music compact discs that were created by Berry’s deceased stepfather and “held great sentimental value for Lt. Berry,” according to the court documents.
The company didn’t get a court order before the auction, and didn’t have a company policy requiring them to do that in the case of military members, the documents allege. However, the company’s written policies and procedures required employees to look for any military decals on vehicles that arrived at their impound, and to do a visual inspection of the interior to look for any signs of military ownership.
But according to the complaint, ASAP’s policies didn’t include checking the free automated database run by Defense Manpower Data Center, to determine if an individual was in the military. If they had run a check based on Berry’s driver’s license in the glove compartment, they would have found that he was in the military, according to the complaint.
“The Justice Department must protect [Berry’s] rights just as he is protecting ours,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division, in a statement announcing the proposed agreement. “We appreciate that the company has worked cooperatively with us to reach a settlement that will compensate all of the service members whose vehicles were taken from them.”
Vince Serrano, president of ASAP Towing & Storage, said he provided documentation to DOJ investigators to show that ASAP has gone to great lengths over the years to find owners, and to protect military members’ vehicles from being sold.
“I do what is right, but being human, we did make some mistakes,” Serrano said, in an interview Sept. 11. “When you consider the quantity of vehicles we process, I feel we did a good job, but I look to do a fantastic job in the future to try and eliminate any errors of this kind.”
The company’s towing services are widely used, and their trucks are sometimes called to installations to remove cars that have been abandoned, said Serrano, an Army veteran.
They’ve traditionally held cars when they have indications they are owned by military, and they try to find the owners, but many have long been abandoned. He said he has a list of 60 vehicles they’re currently holding from auction because they believe they’re owned by military members. Some have been there as long as three years, including a 2000 Jaguar that’s been there since January, 2017.
Now that they know about the DMDC database, they’ve been using that to determine if the car is owned by a service member, he said, but they’ve found some problems in their searches.
A decade ago when service members’ cars had installation decals on them, it was much easier, he said. Now they often don’t have easy access to owner information, he said, unless the car is registered in Florida, where running a check of the vehicle identification number, will bring up the driver’s license of the owner.
“The only way this will be fixed properly is to have military personnel register their vehicles and be identified as active military. We don’t have access to Social Security numbers, nor do we have access to driver’s licenses from every state. The name, if spelled differently, will not pull up a positive hit on the website that we search for military status.”
Maria Chapa Lopez, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, said she was pleased that an agreement has been reached with ASAP. “When service members are deployed, and in harm’s way, fighting for our country, they should be able to find their personal vehicles where they left them when they return home,” she said, in a statement announcing the agreement.