Having his car stolen was bad enough. But for Michael Midden, the real headache began when it was towed.
In an odyssey that could have been written by Homer himself, the San Francisco resident’s car was stolen, recovered by police, then hauled away and auctioned off by The City’s contracted towing company.
That company, Auto Return, insists it did nothing illegal and was unable to contact Midden, yet the incident has gained the attention of City Hall.
The nightmare began Aug. 31 when Midden’s car was lifted in Ashbury Heights, a few blocks from his home. He filed a report and police tracked down the car Sept. 2. However, Midden wasn’t able to pick it up within 20 minutes, the standard allotment for thefts. The car was towed by Auto Return.
When Midden arrived there, he learned it would cost $500 to retrieve his car. Making matters worse, the vehicle was actually at a separate lot — one that was set to close in 30 minutes. Unsure if it was even drivable, Midden opted to keep the car in hock and contest the towing costs — a process The City’s transportation code allows.
The Police Department number Midden was instructed to call, (415) 553-1398, simply rang and rang, was not answered and never went to voice mail. Abandoning that route, Midden then mailed a formal complaint to the Hall of Justice, but received no response after waiting a month.
During this time, daily storage fees of $61.25 were accruing. Still awaiting a reply from authorities a month and a half later, Midden decided to check in with Auto Return. He was told his car had been auctioned off Oct. 12.
A tow company can auction a vehicle without notifying the owner, but only if the value is appraised at less than $4,000, according to the California vehicle code. Midden said Auto Return appraised his car at “a couple of hundred dollars less,” adding that 10 evaluation sites he checked placed a higher value on his 1997 Honda Civic EX.
When he contested the auction in small-claims court, Midden was summarily dismissed by a San Francisco Superior Court judge. And Auto Return’s attorney even threatened to sue Midden for $1,100 in unpaid storage fees.
“This whole thing is completely unfair,” said Midden, who is now taking Muni in lieu of buying a new car.
Police Officer Albie Esparza said the 20-minute waiting rule is not absolute, as some officers stick around longer if they know the vehicle owner is on the way. Esparza said he didn’t know if someone regularly checked the towing dispute phone line at the Hall of Justice or why voice mail was not set up.
Midden also questioned why the storage and towing fees are so steep in San Francisco. If a car is towed in New York City, it costs $185 to be retrieved. Here, the cost is $392.75, and that price increases by $53 after four hours in storage. Part of the charge is $186 in city administrative fees.
In a letter to Midden, Auto Return Vice President Dan Scanlan said that few, if any, municipalities release towed vehicles for free, and that insurance plans usually reimburse the cost to recover the car if it’s been stolen. Legally, Auto Return can begin the process of auctioning off a vehicle if it stays unclaimed for three days.
The matter was complicated further because Midden’s car was registered in Ohio, making it impossible for Auto Return to track down his current address. Scanlan also said there was “no doubt” his company complied with the California vehicle code’s regulations for appraising and auctioning off the car.
“Had you simply contacted us to discuss your situation prior to the car being sold at public auction on October 12, the outcome may have been different,” Scanlan wrote.
The towing tale has caught the attention of Supervisor Scott Wiener, who represents the district where Midden lives. Wiener called the current tow-away policy “extremely unfair” and said he is “looking into it.”
“This is not the way it should happen,” he said.