The Mobile Police Department (MPD) is investigating its own impound yard after discovering it’s been operating in violation of a city ordinance that’s central to an ongoing criminal probe of the local towing industry. Now some of those very companies are fighting back against MPD’s claims and threatening suit.
Mobile Police Chief Lawrence Battiste confirmed last week that, for years, MPD’s impound yard has collected fees that a city ordinance governing towing practices says motorists shouldn’t have been billed for. Those included winching fees and some storage charges that are specifically prohibited.
Battiste said these “inappropriate” charges were in line with MPD’s written policies and procedures and were detailed in internal memos outlining what was appropriate to charge. However, due to what he called an “administrative oversight,” those policies and memos were out of sync with the law.
According to Battiste, the impound yard corrected the issue and is now operating on a fee schedule in line with the city ordinance. Investigators are still looking into exactly what happened.
“We’re trying to rectify this through an internal audit and a review of policies and procedures to make sure they line up with what the ordinance actually says,” Battiste said. “If there appears to be any criminal intent by our personnel, we’re going to take action to address that, but I don’t believe there is.”
Police plan to audit records dating back to 2015, which appears to be the last time an official MPD memo was distributed to impound employees — and to local towing companies — detailing what fees were appropriate to charge.
According to the findings of its audit so far, MPD impounded 357 vehicles in June, and of those cases, 56 involved motorists who were overcharged in some way.
Most overpaid by $20 to $40 for improper storage fees, though some were overcharged as much as $70 because they were hit with an additional $30 winching fee. Though it seemed to be an outlier, in at least one case, a crime victim was “mistakenly” charged $170 when recovering a stolen vehicle.
“That was a mistake,” Battiste said. “We usually release those at no cost.”
According to Assistant Chief Roy Hodge, all of the overcharges — down to the $1.20 convenience fee for using a bank card — are going to be reimbursed, though it’s unclear when that might start. Still, Hodge said MPD would soon be cutting checks to anyone affected, which will likely include criminals.
The 56 overcharges from June add up to a little over $1,500. The number of tows and overcharges will fluctuate from month to month, but with an average of 56 and backtracking to December 2015, MPD could be paying out reimbursements in excess of $60,000 when all is said and done.
“Our position is we took something from someone that we didn’t deserve to have, and it’s the right thing to do to give it back,” Hodge said. “We made a mistake, and we’re fixing it.”
The news of MPD’s investigation into its own impound yard has been noteworthy because some of the violations the department has admitted to are similar to ones towing companies at the center of MPD’s ongoing criminal investigation have been accused of committing.
On July 11, officers raided multiple locations owned by SOS Towing, Southport Towing, Casher’s Towing, A Plus Towing and Heroes Towing. None have been charged with any crime, but all five were suspended from the rotating list of wrecker services MPD calls when responding to accidents.
Those suspensions have caused significant losses for the companies directly, and coverage in the media has also led to some losing individual customers and larger contracts with dealerships.
J.C. Smith, who operates the South Alabama Towing and Recovery Association with his wife, Crystal, said his family’s business — SOS Towing — had lost more than $38,000 as of last week. He told Lagniappe some of the other companies are worried they’re going to be put out of business entirely.
Over the past week, those five companies have been asking why they were suspended and subjected to a highly publicized criminal investigation when MPD is allowed to simply go back and fix its mistakes.
Smith said any of the private companies would have welcomed the opportunity to do the same.
“Four years ago we were given guidance by [MPD] on what fees we could charge and how much we could charge for each. We have followed the guidelines laid out in that letter since 2015,” Smith wrote in an email to city officials. “Battiste nor [MPD] are accusing us of violating the pricing guide on that letter, which is not in compliance with the city ordinance. If the guidance in that letter was wrong, why should we be punished for [MPD’s] mistakes?”
Even though they involve some of the same violations, Battiste rejected the idea of MPD’s overcharges being compared to what the tow truck companies are accused of. Either way, he said the department’s administrative investigation is being handled in the same manner as the criminal probe — adding findings from both would be turned over to the district attorney’s office once completed.
“No charge can be brought against [the towing companies] unless the DA’s office says they committed these alleged crimes and there is probable cause to believe it was an intentional act. There has to be intent, and there also has to be an opportunity for personal gain,” Battiste said. “Not one person at MPD personally profited. The overcharges that we’ve identified so far went into the city’s general fund.”
Battiste also claimed some of the companies were charging what he described as “exorbitant” processing and administrative fees of “$100 or more.” While MPD itself charges a processing fee — something the city ordinance seems to prohibit — Battiste said their fee is collected to cover the cost of processing unclaimed vehicles through the state of Alabama’s abandoned vehicle portal.
However, Smith told Lagniappe SOS Towing charges an administrative fee for the exact same reason. Like MPD, towing companies are required to report unclaimed vehicles, conduct a title search and contact the rightful owners before a car can be sold. Unlike MPD, though, most private towing companies don’t have administrative staff dedicated to processing that kind of paperwork.
That’s why, according to Smith, several local companies hire Jason Steward Enterprises Inc., a Mobile-based business that handles the title searches, tax liens and public notices required in order to move forward with the sale of vehicles that get left on their lots.
On Steward’s website, sellthisvehicle.com, the price of $150 for processing a single car is clearly displayed. According to MPD, breaking even on that $150 cost is a violation of the law. Smith said he’s tried to reach out to explain that and other charges MPD has questioned to no avail.
Regardless of whether they’re charged criminally, the companies say MPD’s tactics have already caused irreversible damage to their businesses. Smith also believes that may be intentional.
The towing association has maintained for weeks that MPD’s criminal probe has been unnecessarily publicized and selective as a retaliation against a handful of businesses that publicly objected to the proposed amendments to the city ordinance MPD brought up earlier this year.
Battiste denied that and said there was “no malice” in its investigation the towing industry. Yet, at least where the media is concerned, this particular investigation has been somewhat unusual. Reporters were notified of July 11 raids on the towing companies in advance, and that day, all five businesses were publicly identified by MPD for the first time, despite not being charged with any crime.
Typically, when the media is invited to these kinds of enforcement actions, arrest warrants have already been obtained for identified suspects, but the towing company raids took place to secure potential evidence and obtain probable cause that was used to justify their suspension from MPD’s rotation list.
When asked about the publicity, Battiste blamed the companies themselves, which he claimed made the matter public when they appealed MPD’s suspension and made public objections to proposed changes in the ordinance before the Mobile City Council.
“A lot of it is because of them. J.C. Smith has been very vocal from the very beginning of what we were dealing with administratively. They were vocal when we tried to revise the ordinance,” Battiste said. “We had committee meetings with them to discuss the revision of the ordinance, and on the date we were actually supposed to proceed with provisions to the ordinance, the wrecker companies came to the City Council and objected to changes that they agreed to in committee meetings.”
Asked about that, Smith said, if the companies had been allowed to speak at those committee meetings, they would have objected to the proposed changes then.
Attorney Harry Satterwhite is representing the towing association and the five suspended companies, and last Friday, he sent a letter to MPD warning if it continues to “defame, intimidate, raid, investigate and suspend” his clients, they would be taking legal action.
In addition to the defamation case Satterwhite believes his clients have, he also argued the section of Mobile’s ordinance governing towing practices would be precluded by federal statutes that prevent state and local governments from regulating the “price, route or service of any motor carrier.”
For now, the troubles between the towing companies and MPD don’t appear to be going away.
Several of the companies have already filed formal complaints against MPD with the Department of Justice and the Alabama Attorney General’s office claiming they are being unfairly targeted. Then on Saturday — a day after Satterwhite sent the letter he called a “last chance” to avoid a litigation — MPD moved to extend the suspension of all five companies for 30 days.
Smith told Lagniappe that may leave the companies with no choice but to file a federal lawsuit.
This page is available to our local subscribers. Click here to join us today and get the latest local news from local reporters written for local readers. The best deal is found by clicking here. Check it out now.
Already a member of the Lagniappe family? Sign in by clicking here