The car impound scam

Topics: Civil Liberties
03 Jan 2008

From: Ervan Darnell

I was talking with a tow truck operator last night, and I learned some
of the dirty secrets of the business. If the police impound your
vehicle, the towing company gets to charge you storage for 30 days [1].
This will cost $2000+. You cannot have it removed from storage, even by
another legal driver. It can only be removed by the owner, who is
prohibited by the terms of impound from driving. Nor can you sell the
car during the impound period (to give it a new owner who could drive
it). Thus, merely having your car impounded is a $2000+ fine without
any trial or judicial proceeding at all. Traffic tickets tend that way,
but you at least have the right to challenge them before paying the
fine. But since the impound is a private company, they have to be paid
regardless of any later legal finding. This is just an end run on the
part of the state around due process.

The law even explicitly appoints the *police* as the judge:
> Under the law, the impoundment of the vehicle is considered
> administrative in
> nature and does not require a judicial hearing. A subject who has his
> or her
> vehicle impounded is entitled to an administrative hearing, but the
> hearing
> officer can be anyone appointed by the impounding agency. [3]

Nominally, this is for unlicensed drivers. Even there it doesn't make
great sense, of a property confiscation instead of a direct penalty.
But it also applies for a variety of lesser offenses, including even
spinning donuts [2] (note the CHP site does not confesses that such
trivial offenses are covered).

Now comes the rent seeking corruption, the banks get an exception, but
you don't (were you to privately sell and finance a car):
> 1) The legal owner is a motor vehicle dealer, bank, credit union,
> acceptance corporation, or other licensed financial institution
> legally operating in this state, or is another person, not the
> registered owner, holding a security interest in the vehicle. [2]

But here is the really nasty part: if you cannot afford to pay the
$2000+ storage and tow fee/fine at the end of the 30-day impound, the
towing company can sell your car to recover their costs. If the value
of the car is < $2000, that makes some kind of sense. But they get to
do this even if the value of the car is more than that, and the owner
cannot arrange to pay the fee in a short period of time. This turns out
to be a major profit source for the towing company (according to the tow
truck driver) because people screw up the details often enough.

But wait, it gets worse still! The local city government gets a cut of
the sale price of the car! This is by law of course. The local
government forced this bit of banditry upon the towing company. So,
here we are in effect bribing the police to senselessly impound cars in
the hope that the city government can unjustly profit from their sale.

As an incidental thought, it seems like the reckless (as opposed to
unlicensed) driver problem can be solved by granting them a
motorcycle-only license. The amount of harm you can to do someone else
by riding a motorcycle is drastically less than with a car (the amount
you can do yourself is much higher of course). That way, people could
still get to work and not have the knock-on penalty of losing their job
(or at least their income for a while) and then not being able to pay
the impound fee. It might also address the problem of unlicensed
drivers. I assume these people exist in part because they had their
license suspended, and had no rational choice but to drive anyway, thus
leading to a revocation when caught again. Had they been able to
motorcycle in that period, they might not have been forced to such a
stark outcome.

Ragnar mailing list