Recently, when the city of Wilmington towed retired graphic designer Earl Dickerson’s van, he took responsibility.
Dickerson could have made excuses. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he struggled financially and could not afford to drive frequently. So he parked his van legally on the street outside his house for an extended period of time. Grieving the death of a grandson, he lost track of time and failed to move the vehicle after the city declared it abandoned.
Rather than blame others, Dickerson paid his $60 fine and $25 impound release fee three days after the city took his vehicle on April 19.
The combined sum should have settled the matter. But when Dickerson went to reclaim his van on May 6, the vendor demanded an additional $910, supposedly for storage.
Dickerson simply did not have the money and could do nothing when the tow company decided to scrap his van and sell it for parts 30 days after impoundment.
Kelley Blue Book estimates the value of the vehicle, a 2002 Dodge Ram 1500, to be at least $2,750. So even if the invoice was valid, Dickerson should have received cashback from the transaction.
Unfortunately, that’s not how things work in Wilmington.
Dickerson got nothing for the loss of his van. Rather than accept the violation of his property rights, he and another Wilmington resident filed a lawsuit on Sept. 22 against the city and its two most recent towing contractors. Our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, represents the vehicle owners.
According to our complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, the tow company is not allowed to charge for storage, making the $910 invalid. But the incident speaks to a larger problem in Wilmington.
The city allows its private tow company to raise revenue by keeping as many vehicles as possible and scrapping those that remain in the impound lot longer than 30 days. The company then gets 100% of the proceeds — no matter how much a car, van, or truck is worth.
Cities have a right to enforce parking codes, but our lawsuit highlights several structural problems in Wilmington that we believe leave residents vulnerable to abuse. Perhaps most egregious is the perverse incentive, which turns law enforcement into a commercial enterprise.
If a tow company makes money by keeping cars, then the company will find ways to do just that. Earlier this year, we were part of a coalition that raised alarms about Wilmington’s ticketing practices. In response, the city sent back a letter that acknowledged its towing contractors generate revenue “from salvaging or selling cars” that remain in its custody. Wilmington also admitted that its designated tow company kept 987 of the 2,551 vehicles that it towed since Jan. 1, 2020 — nearly 40%.
Besides being wrong, we argue that the entire system is unconstitutional. As our lawsuit argues, keeping property worth several thousand dollars over minor infractions violates both the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause and the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines. Additionally, the Fifth Amendment demands “just compensation” when the government takes property.
Municipalities cannot take whatever they want for free. Yet that is exactly what Wilmington did to Dickerson and Ameera Shaheed, the second plaintiff in the lawsuit.
According to our complaint, Wilmington gave Shaheed six parking tickets in nine days, totaling $320. While she appealed, the private company towed her car. The vehicle was worth approximately $4,000, but the vendor kept it and scrapped it after 30 days.
Not only did Shaheed get zero dollars back, but the city continued to demand the same $320 as if nothing had changed. With penalties, the original tickets are now up to nearly $600.
The abuse must stop. Instead of letting private companies scrap people’s cars, Wilmington should scrap its unconstitutional scheme.
Will Aronin is an attorney and Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.