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The first time Josh Podwoski’s motor scooter disappeared, it came right back to him. The guys who had snagged the red Honda Elite in June 1997 were slowly pushing it up Mount Pleasant Street when they dropped it on some woman’s lawn to take a rest. She came out, hollering about the nuisance.
They ran off; the woman promptly called the dealership listed on the bike, and someone at the dealership called Podwoski.
About two months later, the bike got stolen again. It had been parked on Adams Mill Road in Adams Morgan when it vanished. “It was like a target,” says Podwoski.
This time, the police pulled over the alleged thief for running a red light. When they realized the bike was stolen, they had it towed under a contract between the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and Precision Towing. The police even called Podwoski and told him to call the Michigan Avenue NE tow truck company. Which he did, only to find out that in addition to the couple of hundred it would take to fix the bike, he would have to pay Precision $75 for the towing and about as much for the accrued storage time ($14 a day). He would also have to get it towed off the lot, because it was not in working condition. Total cost: about $400.
Podwoski had just bought the scooter brand-new for $2,000, but he was starting to regret the purchase. He’d used it to get around town for his job managing pools, but he couldn’t afford its appeal to thieves. And his liability insurance did not cover theft. When he found out about the towing costs, he decided to write it off.
“Basically, the fear was that if I did everything I needed to do, it would have run me three to four hundred dollars, and who knows? The next week, the same thing might have happened,” Podwoski says. So he never picked up the scooter. He didn’t think much about it until he got sued for $2,677.88 last April.
Podwoski is one of about 200 Washington-area vehicle owners on the wrong side of litigation against Precision Towing (officially named Wisconsin Avenue Sunoco). In 1997, the company filed 33 lawsuits in the small claims branch of D.C. Superior Court, a tally that has more than doubled in 1998. All told, the company has filed close to 200 suits all over the area since last November. Nearly all of them seek damages from people like Podwoski. And many of them highlight mismanagement by MPD.
Matthew Milom, general manager of Precision Towing, schedules one day a month to spend at the D.C. courthouse. Another day is devoted to the Prince George’s County courthouse, and another to the Montgomery County courthouse. “I don’t enjoy going to court,” Milom says.
Milom blames MPD for his bulging docket, claiming the police neglect to notify vehicle owners that their property has been found and is sitting in Precision’s lot. Under District law, MPD is responsible for notifying motorists when their stolen vehicles are recovered. But like any job that requires follow-through and concern for D.C. residents, the task is routinely botched by MPD. “There are a tremendous number of people out there who were never notified,” Milom contends.
MPD relies on Precision because its own lot near the Blue Plains sewage treatment facility is overflowing with towed and unclaimed vehicles. Many of the vehicles at Precision’s five-acre lot across from Catholic University are marked “BP,” indicating that the police were supposed to have sent them to Blue Plains. But except for about 30 cars MPD picked up in the last three months, the cars haven’t gone anywhere, says Precision body shop manager Danny Coker.
Precision cannot legally auction off the vehicles, Coker says, because some are still officially classified as stolen property.
To exact just compensation for its gridlocked lot, Precision last March did what it does best: It sued MPD. Precision’s lot is “nearly completely full” of more than 400 cars that owners don’t know about or that the cops have failed to remove, the lawsuit alleges. The suit seeks $750,000 in damages from MPD.
In its response to the complaint, the District denies that “it has not removed said vehicles from the lot in a timely fashion” and that it has been uncooperative in attempting to locate owners of the cars, according to court documents. An MPD spokesperson referred all calls to Corporation Counsel attorney Robert C. Utiger, who also refused to comment on the case.
If the case goes to trial, MPD may have a hard time addressing the case of Bridgette King, who is being sued for leaving her stolen black Acura Vigor in Precision’s lot. King is a cop with MPD’s 3rd District, but Coker says her colleagues failed to notify her when they recovered the car and sent it to Precision on Sept. 18, 1997.
In the meantime, King’s insurance company compensated her for the loss. So the Acuratwo wheels missing, rain pouring through the open windows onto the leather interiorstill sits in the Precision lot. By now, the car has racked up over $4,000 in storage fees, Coker estimates. King is out on administrative leave and did not return a message left at the police station requesting comment. Says Coker: “It’s one of those things that becomes nobody’s fault and everybody’s problem.”
Some of the cars surrounding King’s Acura are just wrecked skeletons; others appear to be in near-perfect shape. That decaying silver Lexus over there was destroyed in an armed robbery, Coker says on a tour of the auto bone yard. FBI and police officials have come to inspect the car for evidence, but they’ve never taken it away, he says.
Before the contract with MPD began two years ago, Precision’s lot held only about 30 cars, Coker says. Now, if he has to get to one car, it sometimes takes him hours to move the interference out of the way. Several customers have been turned away due to lack of space, he says.
One section is full of about 15 cars, all involved in hit-and-run accidents. Across the way sits a black Chevy Blazer, its entire top sheared off and lying in a crumpled mess on top of the chassis. “[MPD officers] obviously know where the owner of that one is,” Coker says. But dozens of other carssedans and taxicabs and Jeepslook fine, suggesting that their owners may not have the slightest idea that their rides are here.
Even if MPD saddled Precision with hundreds of cars its officers should have looked after, Precision’s failure to notify people before suing them only shifts the cost to the unsuspecting drivers. In their defense, Precision officials claim it is often difficult to find out owners’ names and addresses. Coker says that the license plates and vehicle identification numbers (VINs) are sometimes torn off the vehicles, making them impossible to track.
“There are some technicalities to it,” Coker says, explaining why Precision doesn’t generally use VIN information to track down the owner by mail. Coker acknowledges, though, that he does manage to trace many owners’ addresses once Precision decides to sue them.
Whatever the technicalities, Milom says his company can’t perform towing and investigative services. “Realistically, with or without notification, it is the owner’s vehicle. It is their responsibility, unfortunately…to take care of charges,” Milom says. Especially in cases like Podwoski’s, where the police actually did notify the owner. “Those people I have no pity on,” Milom says. “Abandonment is not permissible. And that’s essentially what he was trying to do.”
In its summons against Podwoski, Precision claims to have sent him monthly statements demanding payment for storagestatements that Podwoski says he never received. Milom admits Precision probably never sent any such notices. “That’s just standard boilerplate,” Milom says. “It’s just how you write a summons.” The claim appears on almost every summons Precision has filed. Precision attorney Jeffrey Harab has little on-the-record comment about the lawsuits. “I have no knowledge of it; all I know about these cases is that they get referred over to me, and I prosecute them,” he says.
Over the last two months, negotiations between MPD and Precision have gone nowhere. The company’s original contract with the city ended after other tow truck companies claimed it left them out in the cold, but MPD still farms cars out to more than a dozen companies in the area, including Precision. Milom complains that Precision has been blacklisted since it filed suit against the city and says MPD sends fewer cars than ever. “It’s just been a real mess,” he says.
When Podwoski appeared in small claims court, the clerk advised him to avoid trial and settle out of court. So that’s what Podwoski did, handing over the title to his scooter and a check for $570 to Precision. While he waited to get processed, he chatted with the small crowd of other people being sued by Precision for the same dubious mistake on the same day.
Podwoski tried to get his credit card insurance to cover the loss, but apparently the card does not cover anything that moves. A few weeks ago, he contacted MPD to see if the person arrested for stealing his bike could be held financially accountable for his loss. That went nowhere.
“What I did wrong was to do nothing,” Podwoski says. “But on the other hand, what they did wrong was claim that they got in touch with me every month.” CP