Recently, when the city of Wilmington towed retired graphic designer Earl Dickerson’s van, he took responsibility.
Dickerson could have found excuses. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he struggled financially and could not afford to drive frequently. He therefore parked his van legally on the street in front of his house for an extended period of time. Mourning the death of a grandson, he lost track of time and was unable to move the vehicle after the city declared it abandoned.
Rather than blame others, Dickerson paid his $ 60 fine and $ 25 impound fee three days after the city took his vehicle on April 19.
The combined sum should have settled the matter. But when Dickerson went to pick up his pickup truck on May 6, the seller asked for an additional $ 910, supposedly for storage.
Dickerson simply didn’t have the money and couldn’t do anything when the towing company decided to scrap his pickup truck and sell it for parts 30 days after impoundment.
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Kelley Blue Book estimates the vehicle, a 2002 Dodge Ram 1500, to be worth at least $ 2,750. So even if the invoice was valid, Dickerson should have received a refund for the transaction.
Unfortunately, this is not how things work in Wilmington.
Dickerson received nothing for the loss of his van. Rather than accept the violation of his property rights, he and another Wilmington resident filed a lawsuit on September 22 against the city and its two most recent towing contractors. Our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, represents vehicle owners.
According to our complaint to the US District Court for the District of Delaware, the towing company is not allowed to charge for storage, rendering the $ 910 invalid. But the incident speaks to a bigger problem in Wilmington.
The city is allowing its private towing company to increase its income by keeping as many vehicles as possible and by disposing of those that remain in the impound for more than 30 days. The company then gets 100% of the proceeds, regardless of the value of a car, van or truck.
Cities have the right to enforce parking codes, but our lawsuit highlights several structural issues in Wilmington that we believe leave residents vulnerable to abuse. Perhaps most blatant is the perverse incitement, which turns law enforcement into a business enterprise.
If a towing company makes money by keeping cars, then the company will find ways to do it. Earlier this year, we were part of a coalition that sounded the alarm bells about Wilmington ticketing practices. In response, the city returned a letter acknowledging that its towing contractors were generating income “by salvaging or selling cars” that remained in its care. Wilmington also admitted that its designated towing company had retained 987 of the 2,551 vehicles it had towed since Jan. 1, 2020, or nearly 40%.
In addition to being wrong, we argue that the whole system is unconstitutional. As our lawsuit argues, retaining property worth thousands of dollars for minor infractions violates both the Fifth Amendment revenue clause and the Eighth Amendment prohibition on excessive fines. In addition, the Fifth Amendment demands “fair compensation” when the government takes ownership.
Municipalities cannot take what they want for free. Yet that’s exactly what Wilmington did to Dickerson and Ameera Shaheed, the second plaintiff in the lawsuit.
According to our complaint, Wilmington gave Shaheed six parking tickets in nine days, for a total of $ 320. While she was appealing, the private company towed her car. The vehicle was worth around $ 4,000, but the seller kept it and scrapped it after 30 days.
Not only did Shaheed not get any dollars back, but the city continued to demand the same $ 320 as if nothing had changed. With the penalties, the original tickets now amount to almost $ 600.
The abuse must stop. Instead of letting private companies dispose of people’s cars, Wilmington should end his unconstitutional project.
Will Aronin is a lawyer and Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia.