Marine Sergeant Discovered Car Missing After Two Year Deployment
“Imagine returning home after honorably serving your country, only to find that your sole means of transportation and its contents are gone and lost to you forever as a result of a towing company’s callous disregard of the law,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) provides a wide variety of financial and housing protections to members of the military. This law also prohibits towing companies from auctioning off servicemembers’ vehicles without a court order. When a towing company fails to obtain a court order prior to auctioning off a servicemember’s vehicle, that servicemember is deprived of his or her right to have a court postpone the auction.
Yet that’s exactly what happened while Sergeant Jennifer Eunjung Ko Wilbur, USMC, was deployed to Japan in 2017. While she was away, the towing company impounded and auctioned her car. Unaware that her automobile had been towed and sold to someone else, Sergeant Wilbur continued to make monthly car payments. The towing company auctioned her car in May 2018; she didn’t return from her deployment until early 2019.
Towing Company Ignored Evidence, Auctioned Anyway
Despite numerous obvious clues, the towing company proceeded to impound the vehicle for auction. The complaint alleges that several facts should have put the tow company on notice that the owner of the vehicle was a servicemember.
First, the Marine Corps Sergeant’s car bore at least one military decal. In addition, military documents were in the car. Her address of record was at a U.S. Marine Corps Base. She obtained her vehicle loan through Navy Federal Credit Union. Finally, the Department of Defense provides a free automated database run by the Defense Manpower Data Center (“DMDC database”) to check whether an individual is a protected servicemember.
Lawyers for the towing company argued it had “no way of knowing that the subject vehicle … was owned by an active duty service member,” the complaint alleged. However, the towing company used information it found in the car to send notice of intent to sell to Navy Federal Credit Union. Instead of waiting for a response from Navy Federal, the towing company auctioned the car less than 14 business days later.
Justice Department Files Lawsuit
When the United States Marine Corps learned of the situation, it contacted the Justice Department. On August 18, 2020 the Justice Department filed a lawsuit in the Middle District of Florida alleging that a Tampa, Florida towing company violated the SCRA. Court documents show that Target Recovery Towing Inc. and Target Recovery & Transport Inc. (together “Target”) allegedly failed to obtain a court order before auctioning off the Marine’s car.
In addition to seeking damages, including the value of the auctioned vehicle and its contents, the Justice Department is seeking to enjoin Target from illegally auctioning off servicemembers’ vehicles in the future in violation of the SCRA. The lawsuit also seeks civil penalties against the defendants.
The SCRA provides a wide variety of financial and housing protections to members of the military. “Of course, no protection is fool proof. Unscrupulous business people have already begun finding loopholes or workarounds in an effort to avoid SCRA,” explained Captain Nicole Naeser, USAF Chief of Legal Assistance for the 50th Space Wing at Schriever AFB, Colorado.
Servicemembers and their dependents who believe their SCRA rights have been violated should contact the nearest Armed Forces Legal Assistance Program Office. Office locations may be found at http://legalassistance.law.af.mil/. Additional information on the Justice Department’s enforcement of the SCRA and other laws protecting servicemembers is available at www.servicemembers.gov.
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