September 7, 2019
OUR POSITION: Perhaps a better policy could be hammered out on how to return stolen property to victims.
Experiencing a theft is surely an unpleasant, sometimes scary and always inconvenient event. But, having your property recovered and not being able, either physically or financially, to retrieve it is truly bad. It's like being victimized twice.
That's exactly what happened to Rob Nelson, as outlined in a recent Sun story by Anne Easker.
In case you missed it, while Nelson was hospitalized, his motorcycle was stolen. Thankfully the alleged thief was caught with the motorcycle.
Charlotte County Sheriff's deputies tried to give Nelson the good news, but they couldn't reach him. They had no idea he was in the hospital. So, they had the motorcycle towed.
Days later, when Nelson was released from the hospital, he found out what happened and called the towing company to retrieve his bike. But, he owed $525 for towing and storage. Not being a man of great means, he couldn't pay the fees.
It wasn't long after that Nelson was notified his motorcycle would be sold at auction to cover his bill. The notice included an address for the auction. Nelson decided to go and make a bid, but the address on the notice did not exist.
When he contacted the towing company they said the motorcycle was sold (later admitting they had purchased it themselves) and he could buy it back for $2,500.
Nelson still has no motorcycle and he's mad at what he claims was a scam. The towing company contends it was all done legally.
We'll let lawyers and police determine what constitutes a scam. But the events leading up to needing to pay $2,500 to recover stolen property point to a problem.
How much work should police do to return stolen merchandise to the rightful owner? Where does their responsibility end? And, is there any way for a person who is out of town, in the hospital or otherwise unavailable, to avoid storage charges if his property can't be impounded at the local law enforcement agency? And, finally, what is a reasonable cost to store stolen property?
Skip Conroy, community affairs supervisor with the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office, said they make every effort to contact owners of stolen merchandise. If they don't know who the owner is, the items are stored in an evidence room. When they cannot contact the owner, and if the stolen items are large as in a motorcycle or vehicle, they have them towed. He said even though the impound lot is rather large, they could not store vehicles there for long.
Sarasota County Sheriff's Office has much the same policy, saying they attempt to contact the owner of the vehicle before they have it towed.
We believe there are things that should change.
First, tow companies used by law enforcement should adhere to a standard fee (including for storage) and a policy for the return of vehicles seven days a week that is approved by the various agencies. Second, any property auctioned off should be auctioned off at a site that is easily accessible and actually exists. Third, penalties for those convicted in a theft should include restitution for the victim — either in terms of loss of use or replacement in cases such as Nelson's.
There should be no avenue for someone who has dealt with the theft of their property to be victimized twice.