The owner of a North Carolina towing company will have to repay Marines whose vehicles he allegedly improperly sold off, including in at least one case when a Marine was deployed, the Justice Department announced this week.
Billy Joe Goines, who owns the Camp Lejeune-adjacent Goines Towing and Recovery, will pay $66,805 in restitution under a proposed settlement agreement with the Justice Department over allegations he violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, or SCRA. The settlement agreement is pending approval by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
"Service members sacrifice a lot -- and, in many cases, everything," Michael Easley Jr., U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, said in a news release announcing the settlement Tuesday. "Debt collectors and towing companies shouldn't be allowed to take and sell their property behind their backs. The Justice Department will vigorously enforce service members' rights under the SCRA. Try to illegally take property from a Marine and find out."
The SCRA, which provides several legal and financial protections for service members, requires towing companies to file an affidavit stating whether a car's owner is a member of the military before they can sell the vehicle. If the owner is in the military, a court can't authorize selling the vehicle until it appoints an attorney to represent the interests of the service member.
But, the Justice Department alleged, Goines and his company repeatedly filed affidavits stating they couldn't determine whether the owner was a member of the military without making a good faith effort to find the information and despite obvious signs the owner was a service member.
The case was the first lawsuit brought by federal prosecutors against a towing company under the SCRA requirement to file military affidavits, according to the Justice Department.
In one case detailed in the Justice Department's March complaint, Goines allegedly towed and sold a Marine's Toyota FJ Cruiser while he was deployed in Japan despite numerous indications the owner was a service member. The SUV had a Marine Corps decal on a rear window, photographs of the Marine and others in uniform in the center console, and 16 military patches adhered to the ceiling, including one with the Marine's battalion logo, his name, military unit at Camp Lejeune, military identification number and blood type.
In other cases, Goines or his employees allegedly filed affidavits saying they could not determine the military status of the owners despite the vehicles having been towed from parking lots for Marine barracks, according to the complaint.
Under the settlement agreement, Goines will repay the SUV owner $9,513. Goines will also have to repay six other Marines whose vehicles he sold, with the amounts varying based on the estimated trade-in value of each vehicle.
Another service member whose Ford Mustang has not yet been sold will get his car back, along with $1,500, according to the proposed settlement agreement. Seven other service members whose cars are still on Goines' lot will also be able to get their vehicles back, while another 22 troops will have any fees associated with towing their cars waived.
Goines will also have to pay $30,000 to the U.S. government to "vindicate the public interest," according to the proposed settlement, which noted that the payment of the penalty was "not an acknowledgment of liability or guilt" by Goines.
In addition to the payments, Goines and his employees will have to undergo annual SCRA compliance training, and he will have to implement new policies to ensure compliance with the law.
"By failing to follow federal law, Goines deprived service members of the opportunity to reclaim their vehicles," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in the news release. "This consent order demonstrates the Justice Department's ongoing commitment to protecting the rights of service members and their families."