A Dallas towing company that federal prosecutors said illegally sold vehicles belonging to five military personnel agreed to pay $ 50,000 as part of a settlement, the Justice Department said.
Almost half of United Tows’ compensation will go to Fassil Mekete, an aviator whose car was towed and then sold in 2017 while undergoing basic Air Force training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland , Texas, a Justice Department statement said on Friday.
“United Tows violated the rights of a victim while serving his country selflessly,” Acting US Attorney Prerak Shah for the North Texas District said in a statement.
Prosecutors filed a lawsuit against United Tows in September on behalf of Mekete. The Justice Department later found that the company illegally sold at least four other vehicles belonging to active-duty personnel between 2014 and 2019.
Federal law protects military personnel from the sale of their property without a court order while on active duty and for 90 days after leaving service.
Mekete got permission from the owner of a martial arts school in Dallas to park his 1998 Toyota Corolla at the school after terminating his apartment lease and showed up for basic training around August 29. 2017, according to court documents. Mekete kept a laptop, computer case, and personal documents in the car.
In early October, after a friend noticed Mekete’s car had left, the aviator called a woman who introduced herself as the owner of United Tows, court documents show. She told him that she didn’t believe he was a military man and that the car would be sold if he didn’t claim the vehicle and pay all towing and storage costs, prosecutors said.
Mekete had to report immediately for technical training at Sheppard Air Force Base near Wichita Falls, Texas, and was unable to retrieve his vehicle. He allowed a friend to collect his things.
The laptop and holster were missing, and the duffel bag appeared to have been cut with a blade, court documents show. The aviator’s car was auctioned off in November 2017 without a court order, case documents show.
At his new base, Mekete had to walk, pay for rideshare or taxi services, or rely on friends’ trips to get to work or run errands. He then bought a used car for around $ 13,000.
The company agreed to indemnify Mekete for $ 20,000; provide $ 20,000 to be shared by the other four service members; and pay a civil fine of $ 10,000. United Tows must also adopt new training policies and requirements, the Justice Department said. The settlement is pending court approval.
Last year, in another case, Florida towing company ordered to pay up to $ 99,500 for auctioning the vehicles of at least 33 servicemen without a court order.
Members of the military and their dependents who believe their rights have been violated can contact the nearest Armed Forces legal aid office. Office locations can be found at http://legalassistance.law.af.mil/.
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