Another Florida towing company is on the hook for illegally towing, selling and scrapping U.S. service members' vehicles while they were deployed.
ASAP Towing and Storage agreed in a settlement reached with the U.S. government to reimburse what may be dozens of service members up to a total of $99,500 for auctioning their vehicles without a court order, the Justice Department said Thursday.
The Jacksonville-based towing service also must pay a $20,000 civil penalty to the U.S. Treasury.
Prosecutors alleged in court filings that the company illegally sold vehicles belonging to at least 33 service members since 2013. A federal law protects military personnel from having their property sold without a court order while they're in serving and for 90 days after leaving the service.
The Department of Justice launched an investigation into ASAP after learning that Navy Lt. j.g. Zane Robert Berry had filed a complaint against the company, accusing it of towing and selling "his sole means of transportation" while he was deployed on a submarine, Eric Dreiband, a civil rights division assistant attorney general, said in a statement.
Prior to deploying, Berry told management at his gated apartment complex in Jacksonville that his car would be parked outside his apartment while he served for seven months on the USS Florida.
But two months after he left, one of the tires on the car went flat and the property managers called ASAP to tow it, court documents said.
The vehicle was towed in April and auctioned off in June, along with several items Berry had left in it including tools, his driver's license, and music CDs, two of which had been made by Berry's deceased stepfather, according to court documents.
Despite a company policy that ASAP employees "do a visual inspection" of impounded vehicles for any signs of a military owner, employees either failed to see or ignored the Navy parking decal on Berry's car and the gold folder with "welcome aboard" documents for the USS Florida on the Cruiser's passenger seat, prosecutors said.
Berry's car was returned a year after it was towed, he told Jacksonville television station News4Jax on Thursday, the same day the settlement was reached and the lawsuit was filed.
Under the settlement, ASAP agreed to pay each service member whose vehicle it had illegally towed the estimated trade-in value of his or her vehicle and an additional $500. The total amount is not to exceed $99,500, according to the settlement, which is subject to court approval.
The settlement came a week after the city of San Antonio, Texas, agreed to pay $47,000 to two service members who complained that the city had unlawfully auctioned off their vehicles while they were in military service. and less than a month after the government sued Target Recovery Towing Inc. and Target Recovery & Transport Inc. for selling a former Marine's vehicle while she served in Okinawa, Japan.