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Institutional Car Theft

We all know that the government wants to take our money. As I’ve explained before, it sometimes tries to take our cars too. What I didn’t mention is that we don’t even have to be the target of a pending criminal matter for that to happen.

A little while back, I spoke with a man who was living at a homeless shelter. He found himself there after being on the streets for some time, but prior to that, he’d been living out of his car. Until the government stole it, that is. They took not just his only means of transportation, but his home as well. It was all because he ran out of gas.

After the poor guy found himself stranded by the side of the road, he started the long trek to fill up a portable fuel container. He actually had enough cash on him that day to fill up the tank, so he isn’t sure why he ran out. Maybe it was the stress of everything else in his life made him forget. Maybe he didn’t trust the gas gauge on his old car. Who knows? He certainly won’t be making the same mistake again. When he returned, his car was gone. His home was gone.

The first thing he did was to call the police. They must have gotten quite the chuckle when they explained to him that his car wasn’t stolen. They’d towed it. And after less than three hours, at that. He didn’t find it so funny, especially when he called the towing company.

He had one real option: he could pay them a steep fee. They didn’t care that he was homeless. They didn’t care that the officer called in the tow prematurely. Pay up or keep accruing fees, they said. He tried to scrape together the cash, money he could’ve used to buy food or clothing or shelter, things he lacked. No luck.

When he called to plead with them after some time had passed, they said they could work with him. He could pay the fee or surrender the title. How sweet of them.

He begged. He told them his story. They didn’t laugh at him, but they certainly didn’t care either. They told him they would begin abandonment proceedings soon because the law required it.

They were lying. They can file for an abandoned title and seek ownership of a vehicle if it is left at the tow yard unclaimed for more than ten days, but they don’t have to do anything. When he wasn’t okay just giving them his car and his home, they filed as soon as possible. They soon became the proud new owners of a busted old car that was worth next to nothing to them but would’ve made a world of difference to a fellow human in need.

So the tow company got his car, but the government needs its cut too. Doesn’t it always? After months of struggle, the man at least found a place to stay and a steady but small source of income. To move up in the workforce, however, he needed transportation. After having had his car wrongfully towed and being required to pay a fee he couldn’t afford, he must pay now the state a $500.00 fee to register any new vehicle because he “abandoned” his previous one.

That’s how it works. A private company doing what the government asked got a car for the practically non-existent cost of a tow and some storage. The government, whose agent arranged to have the car stolen in the first place, will now get a sizable chunk of change for the hassle of having given away a guy’s home to its contractor of choice.

Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed the story. Now, I’ve heard about this kind of stuff more times than I can count. The worst things I hear about the government are almost always true, plus I verified this particular story.

When I called, the tow company acted like it should have been beatified for its selfless willingness to steal his car outright rather than cause him to later incur government fees as well. The officer’s agency acted like he should have thanked them for relieving him of a his car after a couple of hours because locked vehicles safely pulled onto the shoulder are not only aesthetically unpleasant but create a substantial yet strangely inarticulable public safety hazard.

Even now, thinking about the situation makes me furious. Here’s a guy who has been thrown down by society, robbed, and thoroughly beaten. What’s he gonna do? Do the people at the tow company feel bad about what they’re doing? Does the cop?

As I spoke with that man, I imagined how I’d feel if he called my office. What could I have done? I would’ve sent him elsewhere. I would’ve told him I couldn’t help.

It’s true. What part of the system could make him whole? Where are the incentives to encourage individuals and their lawyers to right these wrongs? The system hurts people who haven’t done anything to anyone in particular under the theory that they’re insuring public safety. It’s good at messing up the lives of speeders or jaywalkers or poor guys who run out of gas. It’s terrible at actually helping anyone.

But now you know. The government gets to give your stuff to its preferred vendor. If you’re too poor, said preferred vendor is probably going to get to keep it, and the government is going to fine you for the privilege of having had your stuff given away.

Sucks to be you. Sucks to be all of us, really. Except the people in charge, of course. It’s good to be king. Or their friends.

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5 Responses to "Institutional Car Theft"

  1. […] Man makes a minor and not-uncommon error; government responds by stealing his home. […]

  2. J. Eric Andreasen says:

    If I saw that man subsequently walking away from a burning tow yard or police car, I would wish him “Vaya con Dios”, and walk away, seeing “nothing”. At some point if human dignity is consistently destroyed by an institution and its lick-spittles, it is time to let it burn. Right down to the ground.

  3. Mark Draughn says:

    You know, it annoys me when I get stuck in some government trap like that — the City of Chicago is notorious for sending out notices that you didn’t pay a parking ticket you never heard of that they say they gave you two years ago on a day you can’t possibly remember — but at least I can take it. I have friends, family, a good job, and some money in the bank. But it’s just heartbreaking what can happen to people who don’t have such basic resources. All to feed the government and its favorite people.

    “Government is a broker in pillage” — H. L. Mencken

    1. Matt Brown says:

      What an awesome quote, and one I’d never heard before. Also, although it has nothing to do with this, I’ve loved your recent posts on rational addiction. Fascinating stuff…

      1. Mark Draughn says:

        Thanks. I never know when I write one of those long thinking-out-loud pieces if anyone other than me is reading them. I appreciate the kind words.

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