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Was your car towed while you were deployed?

Posted 5/26/2011   Updated 5/26/2011 Email story   Print story


by Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Legal Office

5/26/2011 - JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. -- Imagine returning from a deployment or a long-term TDY to find your car missing from where you left it. You immediately call the police to file a claim of auto-theft and call all the local towing companies to see if they have any information. Once you file a police report, you notify your insurance company.

Most insurance companies will wait approximately 30 days before they process the claim. If the car is ultimately deemed unrecoverable, you can look forward to a time-consuming, but relatively standard, procedure for getting your compensation.

What if your car was towed and not stolen? If your apartment or condominium association - or even your neighbor decided to have your car towed for whatever reason - you face an entirely different set of problems. Potential reasons for a tow are: a spare tire, out-of-state license plate, broken window, flat tire, missing parking decal, or simply letting a car sit in the same spot for months.

Deployment and long-term TDYs are common events for most servicemembers and they often arise on short notice. You take care of your bills, mail, housing, etc. but you never considered the car you parked in front of your residence would disappear just because you stop driving it on a daily basis.

Consequences of your car being towed can be devastating - especially if you have been gone for a while. The towing cost combined with the storage fee can add up to $8,500 or more for a six month deployment. Even if you are gone for two months on a TDY, your fees can add up to $3,000.

If you contact the party who initiated the tow, most likely a type of residential association, you will instantly hear the representative quoting bylaws, which usually include a provision on towing policies. While they may think an obscure bylaw provision authorizes them to take one's valuable property, like your car, the New Jersey law requires more than a hidden paragraph.

Even if the initiating party had a valid reason to have your vehicle towed, that party must still follow the state law to justify their action. New Jersey has a relatively new law called the "Predatory Towing Prevention Act," ("Towing Act") which increases oversight of tow companies. Below is a summary of the law by New Jersey attorney Mary W. Barrett:

One provision of the Act directly addresses what a private property owner must do before removing a vehicle from its location without the vehicle owner's permission. A property owner may only cause removal of a motor vehicle parked on the property if certain signage is posted, the storage facility is a reasonable distance from the property, and the tow company complies with the Towing Act. The Towing Act further requires a tow company to obtain written authorization from the property owner for the tow.

The signage requirement of the Towing Act is burdensome and may be aesthetically undesirable. Signs at least 36 inches high and 36 inches wide must be installed "in a conspicuous place at all vehicular entrances to the property which can easily be seen by the public." The signs must state the following:
1. The purpose for which parking is authorized and the times during which it is permitted.
2. That unauthorized parking is prohibited and unauthorized vehicles will be towed at the vehicle owner's expense.
3. The name, address, and telephone number of the towing company that will perform the towing.
4. The charges for the towing and storage.
5. The street address of the storage facility where towed cars can be redeemed and the times during which the vehicles may be redeemed.

If the required signs are not posted, a property owner may still tow vehicles parked: (a) on a lot on which a single family home is located, (b) on a lot on which an owner occupied multi-unit structure of not more than six units is located, or (c) in front of any driveway where the motor vehicle is blocking access to that driveway. While legal arguments could be made that the first two exceptions should exempt many associations from the signage requirements, it is likely a tow company would still require compliance before removing vehicles.

A community association must also provide written authorization for the tow and have a representative present to get a vehicle towed. The Towing Act requires that a tow company obtain written authorization from the property owner (or its agent) and that the property owner (or agent) be present at the time the vehicle is towed to verify the alleged violation. A general written authorization is permissible for towing done outside of the property owner's normal business hours or to remove a vehicle which blocks a fire hydrant or entrance to the property. Vehicles must be removed to a storage facility which is a reasonable distance from the property.

Educate yourself as to the laws of your state before you leave your car anywhere for an extended period of time and contact your community or residential association to obtain prior permission to park in a certain spot.

Call the base legal office at 754-2010 for more information, or to make an appointment. This article is for informational purposes and is not intended to constitute legal advice or counsel.

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