Camden County prosecutor issues memo on impound notices

Michelle Perez in May, explaining what she went through after her car was stolen. She was notified months after it was recovered, in a letter threatening fines and lost driving privileges.
Michelle Perez in May, explaining what she went through after her car was stolen. She was notified months after it was recovered, in a letter threatening fines and lost driving privileges. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 12, 2014

The Camden County Prosecutor's Office issued a memo to local municipalities in June that they are required by law to notify vehicle owners within three days after their cars are towed and placed in impound.

The memo was sent days after The Inquirer published stories about a Camden woman who repeatedly asked Camden County Metro Division Police to investigate the theft of her 1991 Chrysler LeBaron.

Instead, Michelle Perez, 32, said she was told by a detective that she was too busy to investigate. The car actually had been recovered within days. An Oaklyn officer spotted the car on the White Horse Pike and chased a driver into Camden, where Metro police assisted. Oaklyn police had the car towed to a Cherry Hill impound lot.

Months later, Oaklyn police informed Perez, a self-employed single mother of two and a veteran of the Gulf war, by letter that if she did not claim her car, she could face fines and lose her driving privileges. She was given a choice: Pay $2,800 to get the car back or surrender the title. The car has since been sold for scrap.

Seven weeks ago, county Police Chief Scott Thomson said he would explore making restitution if his department had made a mistake investigating the theft. Thomson did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Perez said Metro police internal affairs investigators turned her away when she retained an attorney and sued Oaklyn police and the towing company, saying they had failed to comply with state law.

"I'm not surprised," Perez said, describing the lack of response from Metro police since her ordeal began in January.

According to a June 7 memo sent by Joshua Ottenberg of the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, police departments are required to notify owners within three days that their vehicle has been towed and provide ownership information to the impound lot owners. The law states that impound owners must notify the vehicle owners as well.

If they fail to do so, storage fees cannot exceed more than $700. The agency that takes a stolen car report also has a responsibility to notify the owner that the car has been recovered.

Such memos usually are discarded, even as the problems Perez faced unfold across the state every day, said Al King of Helmrich's Transportation System. He said that for nearly three decades, the towing industry has been asking the Attorney General's Office and the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission for enforcement help.

"When municipalities get those letters, they just throw them in the garbage," King said. "We have written letters until we are blue in the face. They just pass the buck."

King said the Garden State Towing Association, which lobbies for the industry, is again asking the attorney general and Motor Vehicle Commission to fix the system so vehicle owners can be properly notified within three days of impound.

Another woman from Camden, Ashley Rivera, 23, said her 1988 Toyota Camry was stolen outside her Fairview home about a year ago. The car was recovered a week later and towed to Pennsauken.

Rivera said she was told she owed $600 to get the car back or she had to surrender the title. She refused both. She said she was not permitted to retrieve anything from the car, including her gold earrings and child's car seat.

"It just blew my mind," Rivera said.


bboyer@phillynews.com

856-779-3838 @BBBoyer

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