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When The Cops Steal Your Car

Last May, while Linda Pitman was helping her son and daughter move across town, the Ukiah Police Department stole her truck, estimated value: $3,000.

Ms. Pitman's adult son Joe was driving. The front license plate was fixed to the dashboard because the front plate holder was broken.

Two Ukiah Police officers, noting that the front plate was missing (and up on the dash), pulled Joe over and ran his license. The officers found that Joe's driver’s license had been suspended for a failure to appear on another traffic citation.

Joe's license had been suspended because he hadn't paid the fine, which, it was later discovered, he had indeed paid via community service, but nobody knew that when Joe was pulled over.

Ms. Pitman was following the truck as a passenger in her daughter’s car when Joe was pulled over. She also pulled over and explained to the two Ukiah Police officers that the truck belonged to her, she owned it, it was registered to her and she had a clear driver’s license.

According to Ms. Pitman, one of the officers was “ready to give me the keys,” but the other officer insisted that the truck had to be impounded because it was being driven by a person whose license had been suspended.

“The second officer [whose name Ms. Pitman didn’t catch] basically just told me to shut up,” said Ms. Pitman.

The three Pitmans watched as Mom's truck was hooked up to a tow truck and disappeared down the street to the impound yard at All In One Towing, a few blocks north of the Courthouse in central Ukiah.

And so commenced Ms. Pitman’s so far unsuccessful six-months long attempt to get her truck back.

First there was the “post-storage hearing.”

At that time the Ukiah Police hearing officer told Ms. Pitman that she had to show the Police Department that her son had a valid license.

“I have a valid license,” Ms. Pitman told them. “The truck is registered to me. There is no reason for you to keep it.”

As Ms. Pitman explained, “My son can't get his license now because he can't pay the fines which have built up. He still has traffic court cases pending. The license had a hold on it for nonpayment of fines. I didn't know that. Now that he has gone to court a few times since then, he saw that his license was valid at that time. He had appeared. He has been to court several times and it's not always clear what status his license has. He has done community service and that was supposed to clear that one.”

“That one” being the cleared ticked that got Ms. Pitman's truck impounded, with every day it remained in the joint custody of the Ukiah Police Department and All In One Towing, Ms. Pitman being charged a hefty per-day storage fee.

Part of her son’s license problems have to do with him losing his job a few months ago. He hasn't had the income to  pay the fines which accrue at a compound rate that would make a usurer get up and dance.

Ms. Pitman is not a person to go quietly. She hit the reference books and soon found that neither failure to appear nor failure to pay a fine are valid reasons for impounding a vehicle, even if the truck had been registered in her son’s name.

But she owned the truck. It was registered in her name and she had a clean driving record.

Ms. Pitman, you could say, had been carjacked by the Ukiah Police Department.

But the Ukiah police officer who presided over that initial impound hearing insisted that the vehicle had been properly impounded and denied Ms. Pitman’s application on the spot since she couldn't prove her son's license was good.

Like, what?

Your adult kid is driving your vehicle and you're supposed to know and be responsible for the status of his driver's license?

Asking around as she tried to find a way to appeal the UPD’s ongoing kidnap of her truck, Ms. Pitman quickly discovered that the police considered her clear title to the truck and her spotless driving record as irrelevant. The cops were holding her truck hostage to punish her son for his traffic violations.

Meanwhile, the “storage fees” at All In One were running upwards so fast they would soon exceed the value of the hostage pick-up.

Finally, after a month of trying to find a way to take the UPD and the City of Ukiah to court to make her case, Ms. Pitman was told to try filing an “Early Release of Vehicle” request form.

By the time she filed it, the 30 day time limit in which this particular form had to be filed had passed — which was explained to her by the visiting woman judge named Ritchie who heard this first application. That judge agreed that Ukiah shouldn’t be able to keep her truck, but she also ordered Ms. Pitman and the Ukiah Police Department to enter mediation at the Courthouse’s Mediation Center to see if the matter could be resolved somehow.

Not that the judge's lame buck-passing mattered. The Ukiah Police Department wouldn’t budge. No mediation. Their position was, pay the impound fee or pound sand.

The Ukiah Police Department did appear in court after their summary rejection of mediation.  A different visiting judge also told the Ukiah Police rep that the City couldn’t keep the truck. But since the court recording equipment malfunctioned, Ms. Pitman has no official record of what was said.

“The first time I went to court, Captain Trent Taylor said that he didn't know what the proper procedure [for arguing her case or getting her truck back] was. I replied, ‘You don't know what the proper procedure is, but you're keeping my truck for over 30 days?’”

“I spoke to the Highway Patrol,” explained Ms. Pitman last week. “The Highway Patrol will tell you that if you let the person who has a license problem drive again then they will impound the car. But first they give a warning. The Ukiah Police has to have a clear procedure for people who are pulled over. They need to be told what the proper impound procedure is and what their options are. … There is a vehicle code for ‘impoundment and forfeiture of vehicle.’ It says that vehicles should be released to the registered owner at the time if the driver isn’t the registered owner. It’s supposed to be released within three days of impoundment if the driver of the vehicle at the time of impoundment presents a valid license — if it's his vehicle. But then it clarifies that if it is somebody else's vehicle it has to be released to the registered owner at the time of the impoundment. I am the registered owner and the vehicle should be returned to me.”

Whatever was said, whatever the law says, All In One still has All Of Ms. Pitman's Truck.

As far as the Ukiah Police Department is concerned, there was nothing to mediate, and all Ms. Pitman had to do to get her truck out of impound after two fruitless court appearances was pay the towing and storage fee — which by this time was — wait for it — $2,400.

When Ms. Pitman went to All In One to try to explain the problem to them, she says that the tow truck driver told her, “Nobody ever wins these. They do this all the time and we always keep the vehicle. We always get our money.”

Ms. Pitman adds, “And they do always win because it's very hard to fight them and nobody knows the process.”

Ms. Pitman didn’t have $2400. Who the hell has $2400 lying around to bail out a truck worth $3000? Or one worth $30,000?

Finally, months later and with storage fees still piling up, Ms. Pitman filed a small claims action seeking the return of her truck, plus reimbursement for her expenses and damages which she incurred because her vehicle — the purloined truck — was still held by its kidnappers. She missed doctor's appointments and had to rent cars and take taxis to get around, keeping a meticulous file of receipts and the records of her complicated itineraries.

The small claims case was heard last Friday morning presided over by newly appointed judge (and former Mendocino County Counsel) Jeanine Nadel.

Before hearing Ms. Pitman’s presentation, Judge Nadel dispatched Ms. Pitman and Ukiah Police Captain Trent Taylor to mediation.

Captain Taylor wouldn’t mediate.

At the mediation hearing Captain Taylor produced a legal “brief” from Ukiah's dependably obfuscating City attorney explaining that 1. Judge Nadel didn’t have jurisdiction in a case like this, and 2. even if she did, Ms. Pitman should have filed a “Writ of Mandate” petition, not a simple small claims case.

Back into Judge Nadel’s courtroom.

Ms. Pitman began by summarizing the background of the problem and offered to provide Judge Nadel with a package of materials including the original traffic citation, copies of the forms she had submitted, copies of the applicable vehicle code, copies of court cases she had found which showed that the vehicle should be returned to the registered owner if the registered owner provides proof of valid license, copies of receipts and missed appointments — a full package of irrefutable, slam-dunk evidence demonstrating that her truck had been illegally taken from her.

Judge Nadel asked Ms. Pitman to show her paperwork to Captain Taylor who spent several minutes quietly reviewing it. Then Judge Nadel accepted Ms. Pitman’s package of substantiating papers, and questioned Ms. Pitman briefly about how it was that she happened to be on-scene when her son was pulled over. Ms. Pitman explained that she had been following in her daughter’s car while she and her two children were moving, adding that one of the two officers had been prepared to give her the keys to her truck on the spot.

“None of this is my fault,” Ms. Pitman told Judge Nadel. “I have a perfectly clean driving record and they have no proper procedure for getting cars out of impound.”

Judge Nadel then turned to Captain Taylor for a response.

“I will submit on my brief,” Captain Taylor quietly replied, handing over the quarter-inch thick document of ad hoc legal gibberish complete with “points and authorities” prepared by Ukiah City Attorney David Rapport, which in effect said that Judge Nadel should just butt out. (Lawyers are not allowed to make legal presentations in small claims court, and Taylor's pile of Rapport's bushwah should have been summarily tossed as inadmissable. Judge Nadel might have even asked if Captain Taylor disputed anything that Ms. Pitman had just alleged.)

Nevertheless, Captain Taylor made no attempt to dispute any of the statements Ms. Pitman made.

Sitting with Captain Taylor at the defendant’s table were three people from All In One Towing, the owner and two of his female assistants. All In One launched into a detailed presentation about how they had formally notified Ms. Pitman of the impoundment and the deadline dates by mail but she didn’t pay up because she had changed her address. And so on, ad nauseum. Ms. Pitman was, however, considered “notified,” and she now owed All In One — brace yourselves — more than $12,000.

All-In-One graciously conceded that they’d settle for the $7500 small claims maximum.

The more senior pirate from All In One said her company now had every right to sell the truck since they’d followed all the notices and paperwork and Ms. Pitman hadn’t paid. Besides, in this twisted logic, Ms. Pitman had somehow managed to get the DMV to put a “courtesy hold” on the sale of the vehicle which temporarily postponed the sale, forcing All-In-One to continue to park Ms. Pitman's truck on All-In-One's suffering premises.

Judge Nadel asked Ms. Pitman if she had anything further to say.

Ms. Pitman agreed that the towing company had no liability in her case against the City of Ukiah, and that the only reason she didn't respond to All In One's demands to pay the fine was that she didn't have $2400 to get the vehicle out of impound, adding, emphatically, “The vehicle should have been released to me at the scene. This was a minor offense and it is not impoundable.”

In other words, if anybody owed All-In-One money it was their buds at the Ukiah Police Department.

“Basically,” said Ms. Pitman, “all I want is my vehicle back and the costs that I've incurred for not having a vehicle for six months. I have missed several medical appointments because I didn't have a vehicle. I have had to pay for rides around town for six months.”

Judge Nadel said she would take the matter under submission and issue a written opinion within two weeks. As the All-In-One delegation was getting up to leave, the judge, pointing an admonishing finger at them, said,  “Don’t sell that vehicle before my decision is issued.” ¥¥

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