In 2013 Chelmsford, Massachusetts police officer Todd Ahern stole a car to pressure a woman into testifying against her ex. This according to a jury verdict upheld by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in May.
A suspect’s ex-girlfriend had his car. Police towed the car with her belongings inside, got a warrant, searched the car, found nothing, sent the car away to the town’s tow contractor for storage, and refused to return it or even say where it was.
Why didn’t they return it? Two reasons.
First, they were holding the car and its contents hostage to try to pressure the woman into testifying against her ex. Which is illegal.
Second, the town’s tow contractor could charge storage fees. Not to the police who ordered the car held. To the innocent owner of the car. Which is legal. The longer the car was impounded, the more the company could make. Non-consent tows, as they are called, are good business. Tow companies pay kickbacks to get the job.
Christopher’s Towing was happy with this arrangement until storage charges clearly exceeded the car’s value. Then they were effectively storing it for free. Tow companies don’t do charity. After three months they finally said “we have your car, come get it.”
Like most people, the couple didn’t have $5,000 cash to get a $2,000 car out of the impound lot.
The couple did have a lawyer who spent more than $5,000 worth of billable hours on the case. Mr. Fischer likes to take on civil rights cases and I assume he worked on the chance the town would have to pay him.
If the town and its police officers violated the couple’s constitutional rights, they would have to pay the plaintiffs’ lawyer. Not a one third contingency fee. Fair market value for the time he spent. That could easily be tens of thousands of dollars. Complicated cases run into the millions.
If it’s just an ordinary case of theft, the American rule says you pay your own attorney even if you win.
The verdict was an ordinary case of theft. So the lawyer is out however many hours he spent on the case.
I wrote “stole” and “theft” above. These words encompass a broad range of acts.
The legal term used in this case was “conversion.” Which also includes a broad range of acts. If you break into a bank and haul away a sack of cash, you converted the cash. If you legally take out a library book but never return it, you converted the book. The essence is wrongly depriving somebody else of the use of property.
(There’s a loophole: if you take something intending to return it and do return it, it’s all OK. That’s why we have laws specifically prohibiting using a car without permission. To close that loophole.)
Like I said, the car wasn’t worth much. The couple got $2,225 for the value of the car and its contents. This wasn’t a criminal case meant to punish a thief. It was a civil case to compensate people for the value of lost property.
The Appeals Court seemed to consider the legal work in the case sloppy. I don’t know if it was a winnable civil rights case. But there needs to be a greater deterrent to theft than making the police department file a claim with the town’s insurance company.
To start, police should be initially responsible for all costs when they order a tow. Then Officer Ahern would have had to explain to his brother (the Deputy Chief) why he was costing the department thousands of dollars.
Making police front the tow and storage cost would also end the practice of kickbacks. Under current practice kickbacks are added into the car owner’s bill. If the town’s money were at risk, the town would negotiate a lower tow rate instead.
So what started all of this?
According to a contemporary newspaper report, the original crime being investigated was mayhem. Specifically, the owner of the car bit a man’s ear off.
You know the saying, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a car for an ear.
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