Woman sues police, towing company over impoundment

Michelle Perez, who is suing Oaklyn police and a towing company, says she was never notified that her stolen car had been recovered and then was charged storage fees greater than the car's value.
Michelle Perez, who is suing Oaklyn police and a towing company, says she was never notified that her stolen car had been recovered and then was charged storage fees greater than the car's value. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 14, 2014

A woman whose car was stolen outside her home in Camden has sued police and a towing company, alleging she was never properly notified that her Chrysler had been recovered and then was charged excessively for storage.

Lawyers for Michelle Perez filed a proposed class action lawsuit Thursday in Superior Court in Camden against Oaklyn police, who had the car impounded, and Cioffi's Towing in Cherry Hill.

In January, Cioffi's towed and stored the stolen 1991 Chrysler LeBaron after police chased the driver of the vehicle from the Black Horse Pike in Audubon into Camden. It had been stolen outside Perez's Benson Street home eight days earlier.

Perez, 32, an Air Force veteran, reported the car stolen to the Camden County Police Department Metro Division Jan. 12, the day the car disappeared, and said she repeatedly asked police to investigate. Perez said a department detective told her that she was too busy to investigate car thefts.

But the car was sitting in Cioffi's storage lot from Jan. 20 on. Perez received a certified letter sent April 30 from Oaklyn police warning that if she did not retrieve the car, she could face fines and a revocation of driving privileges for two years.

When Perez arrived at Cioffi's, she was told it would cost more than $2,800 to get the car back - more than the car was worth. Instead, she surrendered the title, and the car was sold for scrap.

"What I feel they should do at this time is to see who else has fallen victim to this," Perez said Thursday after the lawsuit was filed by Marlton lawyer Joseph Osefchen

Last month, Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson promised to make restitution to the single mother of two if his department had botched its investigation. Since then, Perez said, she has heard little from Camden County police. She is scheduled to meet with Camden internal affairs investigators Friday.

"Right now, I have provided them all the documentation. I don't see that they've done any research on their own," Perez said. "They admitted they dropped the ball, and they admitted they did not notify me."

Osefchen said Camden County police initially failed to properly investigate, but once Oaklyn had the car impounded and once Cioffi's took possession, both also had responsibilities to notify her. State law requires police to send notification within three days of impoundment and the storage facility to do so within 30 days.

Osefchen said if the storage facility cannot contact the owner, the law caps storage fees at $700.

According to the lawsuit, the notice to Perez "amazingly ... actually threatens the vehicle owner - who is a victim of auto theft." If Perez did not pay the "unlawful and inflated charges for months of vehicle storage, or sign over the title" to Cioffi's, she would be fined, according to the lawsuit.

"The unconscionable nature of this threat is clear," the suit claims, noting that Cioffi's was aware the car had been stolen and not abandoned.

Fred Cioffi, owner of the towing and storage facility, said Thursday that he had not charged Perez anything.

"She's trying to turn water into wine," said Cioffi, who would not comment on whether he was aware of legal requirements to notify owners of storage and cap fees. "That car was a junker."

Perez does not dispute that her sedan - which she bought used for $600 a couple of years ago - was in bad shape with damage from the theft. But she had spent $2,000 for a new transmission, she said, and it was the only car she had.

Thomson did not respond to calls for comment Thursday. Oaklyn Police Chief Mark Moore said last month that the Chrysler was entered into a law enforcement database Jan. 20, as required by law, and Camden County police could have used it to find the car. Moore did not return calls for comment Thursday.

According to an Oaklyn police report, a borough officer first discovered the stolen car in that jurisdiction and pulled the driver over in Audubon. The driver fled, with the officer following into Camden. County police assisted. The driver was subsequently arrested, and criminal charges are pending.

On May 22, Thomson issued a statement through a spokesman saying, "If we made mistakes in this case, we will explore providing restitution." He has not fielded questions on the case.

Since then, an internal affairs officer has picked up copies of police documents Perez collected. On May 30, the same officer requested that she make a recorded statement by telephone, but Perez said she was on her way to Chicago.

Perez is seeking an unspecified amount in damages.


bboyer@phillynews.com

856-779-3838 @BBBoyer

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