By Mike De Felice
Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – Imagine being deployed in the military serving your county, then finding out that your car at home has been auctioned off without your knowledge.
This is what happened to Vincent Rowell, a sailor who served at sea in the Pacific, according to the state attorney general’s office. Bethel Garage auctioned off the military’s car before checking to see if the vehicle was owned by a service member, as required by law, the GA’s office said.
A settlement between the towing company and the state was filed in Kitsap County Superior Court on December 16. The deal calls for the Port Orchard towing company to return Rowell’s money earned from the car’s auction, along with an additional $ 2,000. to compensate the sailor for a year when he did not have a vehicle, according to the office of the GA.
Bethel Garage Inc. operates Bethel Towing in Port Orchard and Town and Country Towing in Gig Harbor.
“When our military personnel are deployed away from home and their families, they shouldn’t have to worry about whether their belongings are safe,” said State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “The law is clear – towing companies have an obligation to determine if a car belongs to a member of the military.”
Ron Jake, Bethel Garage’s director of operations, said the law may be clear, but he has no idea it exists.
“Ignoring [of the law] is no excuse – we know that – but basically the industry was unaware that we had to check and see if a vehicle we were going to deal with was or was not owned by the military, ”Jake said.
“I first found out about the law when the attorney general’s office served me with legal action,” he said.
In 1980 Rowell was a submariner on the USS Connecticut. He was sent on duty and left his car with a friend. The vehicle was then involved in an accident. After the crash, the car was towed away and eventually auctioned off, said Brionna Aho, director of communications for the attorney general’s office.
The attorney general’s office claimed Bethel Garage violated the Federal Civilian Relief Act (SCRA), which has a similar equivalent in state law. The law provides protection to active service members, including against auctioning off their property while on active service. The law requires companies to obtain a court order before auctioning off vehicles owned by active duty members, according to the AG’s office.
What Bethel Garage should have done in this case is search the vehicle’s information records to find the name of the registered owner, Aho said. The next step was to run the owner’s name on a free, publicly accessible Defense Ministry database to see if a member of the service owned the vehicle that was going to be auctioned, she added. .
These steps were apparently not taken until Rowell’s car was put up for auction. Despite the company’s run-ins with the state, Jake said he agreed with the law protecting the rights of active-duty military personnel.
“I fully support and understand the whole idea behind it. I have no problem with that. The thorn in my side is the fact that when the law was introduced they did a poor job of communicating to the people it affected, ”Jake said.
As soon as the towing company became aware of the requirement, those steps were taken, the businessman said.
“I started doing it right away. I am absolutely very supportive of the military. Whenever I see one in uniform, I always thank him for his service.
The Bethel Garage case is part of an ongoing initiative for the military and veterans of the GA office to protect active duty members and veterans in Washington. The initiative involves educating the military about their legal rights, promoting their access to civilian legal services, and enforcing legal protections designed to protect those associated with the military.