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THE GOODS : How to Repossess Your Car


By the end of this year, it will have happened to about 180,000 of us in Los Angeles.

Leaving a restaurant or a friend's home, especially in an unfamiliar part of town, you discover that something large and hard to lose is missing. It's your car.

You haven't forgotten where you left it. Thieves have not stolen it. You've misread or ignored a traffic sign, or haven't registered your vehicle, and it's been towed.

Some drivers get angry and blame everyone but themselves. But there are more efficient approaches to reclaiming your transportation.


Locating Your Wheels: In most cases, the first step is to call any of the Los Angeles Police Department's 16 divisions, which have computerized records of impounds.

Most tows are initiated by police or the city's Department of Transportation, and the vehicles end up in garages belonging to the 17 towing services that hold contracts with the city.

A merchant or property owner who orders your vehicle removed may use a private towing firm. "But a tower who's not from an official police garage is required to notify the city within 30 minutes, so that when you call the LAPD they will tell you where the car is," says Detective Kelly P. Mulldorfer of the Police Commission's Investigation Division, which oversees official police garages.


Reclaiming the Vehicle: Once you've located the car, go to the towing garage with a valid driver's license, proof of ownership or registration, and enough cash or a major credit card to pay impound and storage fees.

What It Costs: You'll pay a $71.25 fine ($139.50 for trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds) to the towing company and a $40 release fee to the city, says Ken Spiker Jr., executive director of the Official Police Garage Assn. of Los Angeles.

You'll also surrender daily storage costs of $13.25 for standard vehicles; $15 for one-ton trucks 20 feet or less; $19.75 for trucks, boats and house trailers longer than 20 feet, and $4.25 for motorcycles.


Ticket Scofflaws: To regain a car that's been impounded with five or more tickets, you must pay the tickets at a Department of Transportation Parking Violations Bureau and come back to the impound lot with a receipt. There are four locations--Downtown, Mid-Wilshire, Van Nuys and West Los Angeles.

"There is no process to collect fines for fewer tickets," Spiker says, "although such a system has been discussed with the police commission."


Don't Delay: After three days of storage, the towing garage can start proceedings to sell your car at a police auction--these are held weekly--to recoup unpaid costs. The public auction may take place after 15 days, but is usually not conducted for about six weeks. Cheaper cars are often auctioned fastest so storage fees won't exceed the value of the car, says Mulldorfer of the LAPD.

"But the garage must advertise the sale," he says. "It must also send letters to owners explaining the sale and informing them they can oppose it."

The biggest problem with notification comes when new owners don't register their cars.

"Towers are only required to notify the registered owner about the sale, so the paperwork goes to the old owner and he throws it into the trash," Mulldorfer says.

Profits from the auction in excess of towing and storage fees are supposed to be sent to the Department of Motor Vehicles and be available for the owner of the car, Mulldorfer says.

"But most owners never notify the DMV. I don't think they know the money is available."

There were also complaints in the past that some lien sales "were not completely above board," Mulldorfer says. "But that was taken care of and it's very rare today with official police garages."


What Attracts Tow Trucks: Your auto is eligible for impound and sale if you're arrested while driving, if you're pulled over and have no proof of a valid driver's license or if your registration expired more than a year ago.

The car can also be removed if it's in a tow-away zone, blocking a fire hydrant, in an intersection or otherwise obstructing traffic. It's also a candidate for towing if it's parked in one spot for 72 hours or if unpaid fines on the vehicle exceed $500.

The Department of Transportation, which shares towing responsibility with police, is on the prowl, using computerized vans to check every parked vehicle in randomly selected areas.

Last-Minute Rescue: If you see an official police tow truck lifting up your car, you can ask the driver to stop.

"If you come upon your vehicle being towed or in process of being lifted up, the official police garage will drop the vehicle and charge half the $71.25 towing fee," says Spiker from the Official Police Garage Assn. "You must still pay the $40 fee mandated by the city."

Protect Your Valuables: If you're present and can't stop your car from being towed, it's smart to retrieve your valuables or, if you can't, point out valuables in the vehicle so they can be included on the report, Mulldorfer says.

"If the items turn up missing, you have verification they were in your car in the first place," she says. "A lot of times, the public is upset. They try to allege theft that just comes up to the cost of the impound."

The Police Commission investigates these complaints.

Appeals: Supervisors in the Transportation Department generally conduct hearings for those who think their vehicles have been towed unjustly. You may bring witnesses and ask that the officer who ordered the tow be present.

"If the supervisor decides we did have probable cause to tow, and the car owner still is unsatisfied, he can file a complaint with the city clerk's office," says Jim Price, a parking enforcement manager at the Transportation Department.

In that case the city clerk generally asks the city attorney to conduct an investigation to decide again whether there was probable cause, Price says.

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