A judge in Mobile, Alabama, questioned local law enforcement’s use of controversial civil asset forfeiture laws to seize four tow trucks from a Mobile-based SOS Towing, but rejected the company’s request to have the trucks returned.
Circuit Court Judge Wesley Pipes denied the towing company’s request for an injunction, saying there are other methods for the company to get the vehicles back.
Pipes acknowledged that the seizure was pushing SOS Towing to financial ruin, but said he would require evidence that the company tried to obtain a bond on the vehicles before he would reconsider.
The bond is a legal mechanism that allows the return of seized property so long as it’s double the property’s value. In the case of SOS Towing, that bond would be $193,000, because the four trucks seized by law enforcement are valued at $96,500.
Gary Lamar Smith Jr., the owner of SOS Towing, told Judge Pipes on October 25 that he couldn’t post such a high bond and was facing bankruptcy because he couldn’t work without the vehicles.
Police used civil asset forfeiture to seize the trucks on September 17 when they arrested Smith Jr. and his father, Gary Lamar Smith Sr., on multiple counts of first-degree insurance fraud and one count of second-degree insurance fraud, court records indicate.
Smith Jr. told the press that the Mobile Police Department was deliberately targeting his company. Before the seizure, SOS Towing was banned by the police department for 60 days during the summer from the city’s lucrative rotational towing list because it allegedly overcharged customers. Smith Jr. believes it’s because he criticized proposed changes to the Mobile’s towing laws.
In his ruling, Pipes questioned the criminal case against the two men, including whether they even committed insurance fraud at all.
“Specifically, the Court questions whether the act of sending an invoice to an insured vehicle owner, or to the company itself, can be described as presenting ‘false’ information to an insurance company in order to receive payment for a claim or pursuant to a policy,” said Pipes in his ruling. “There is no allegation that the services were not rendered; there is no allegation that the invoices were padded; the sole allegation is that the charges, i.e., the rates, for those services exceeded those allowed by the City of Mobile for participation in the rotation list.”
Attorneys representing the Smith men said not only were the alleged overcharges not insurance fraud; the seized vehicles couldn’t have been used in that process because the fraud consisted of filing paperwork. The Smiths are due back in court for the criminal trial on November 4.
Civil asset forfeiture is a contentious law that allows the seizure of private property if said property is suspected of being connected to criminal activity. These seizures sometimes occur without any conviction or even charge of criminal activity. In most jurisdictions, including Alabama, law enforcement agencies are allowed to keep all the proceeds relating to the forfeiture. Critics of the law argue that law enforcement agencies are incentivized to abuse the law because they get to keep the proceeds.
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