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To Michelle Kail’s way of thinking, her 2005 Ford Mustang was stolen twice — first when her boyfriend took it, and then when she was socked with hundreds of dollars in towing and storage fees she couldn’t afford.

The Shippensburg resident’s trouble began the morning of May 24 when she let her boyfriend at the time, Matthew Loren Haynes, take the keys to the Mustang to go to a job interview. He hadn’t returned by the following evening and she was unable to contact him, so she called police.

On Sunday, Haynes told her the car was in the parking lot of Target in Carlisle Crossing shopping plaza, but he still had both sets of keys and wouldn’t give her a set. (Haynes was charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, and remains at-large on active warrants for failure to make payments in other criminal cases.)

She notified police, thinking she’d get her car back. Instead, Shippensburg Police had her vehicle towed to Abe’s Auto Service, which charged her more than $500 to take it off their lot — more than she could afford, she said. Abe’s wouldn’t negotiate a payment plan and is charging her $50 per day to store it there.

Kail believes charging victims to recover property that was stolen from them is unfair.

“It’s like I’m being punished because he stole my car,” she said.

Yet officials from Shippensburg Police and State Police said towing bills are the victim’s responsibility and even if they are paid, there may be legal reasons why the car can’t be immediately returned to its owner.

‘We don’t pay tow bills’

There were complications regarding Kail’s driving documents at the time of the theft. She had problems with her driver’s license and did not have insurance on the vehicle, according to Shippensburg Police Chief Meredith Dominick.

Kail said her mother died in March, and she was in the process of getting the title and insurance transferred. Although the Mustang was in her mother’s name, she had paid for the car, she said.

The driver’s license problems involved unpaid fines, Kail said. She now has a payment plan and can legally drive.

Regardless, Dominick confirmed that police are not preventing Kail from getting her car back. The dispute is currently a billing issue between Kail and Abe’s, and “Abe’s deserves to get their money as well,” she said.

Dominick said that police contacted Abe’s to have the Mustang removed from the Target parking lot. It could not legally remain there, and Kail did not have a key, she noted. The tow bill and storage fees are Kail’s responsibility, not the police department’s responsibility, according to Dominick.

“We don’t pay tow bills,” she said.

A representative for Abe’s referred all questions about the incident to Shippensburg police.

‘Horrible predicament’

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Cumberland County Chief Deputy District Attorney Michelle Sibert, who oversees the district attorney’s victim services division, called Kail’s situation a “horrible predicament.”

In her opinion, however, police should at least attempt to contact the owner of the vehicle before towing it to see if the owner can drive it or if she would like it towed to her own home. Towing it to an impound lot should be a last resort, she said.

Police also have the ability to negotiate with the towing companies they use and could ask the towing companies to charge a lower rate for towing and storage when the car owner is a victim of vehicle theft, she said.

“When you’re dealing with a person who’s had their vehicle stolen, we have to give them some options. They’re a victim of their vehicle being stolen, and now they’re a victim (again),” she said.

When Sibert became aware of Kail’s case on July 11, she called Abe’s Towing and learned their total fee for towing and storage of the Mustang had risen to $2,725. Abe’s was unwilling to negotiate a lower price, she said.

She recommends victims in a similar predicament contact her office more quickly. Before storage fees have accumulated, her office may have more ability to help the person afford to get his or her vehicle back. The victims services division has two locations – Room 201 of the Courthouse in Carlisle, which can be reached at 717-240-6220, and 2120 Market Street, Camp Hill, which can be reached at 717-761-5599.

A common policy

Kail isn’t the only person to face a financial predicament after her stolen vehicle has been recovered.

Teresa Wenzel was hit with a $2,400 towing and storage fee last fall while Harrisburg Police investigated the theft and a subsequent crash of her vehicle. The bill was only dropped after PennLive began working on a story about the case.

The owner of the towing company involved in that case told PennLive insurance companies will often cover towing and impound costs for stolen vehicles if the owner has comprehensive insurance coverage.

The Richmond Confidential news service in California compiled policies from several California cities, all of which require theft victims to pay towing and storage fees. The Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm, filed a class-action lawsuit against Chicago earlier this year questioning the constitutionally of towing and storage fees for cars impounded by police because of their connection with a crime.

Any time Pennsylvania State Police recover a stolen vehicle, it is towed to a police-owned impound lot, according to spokesman Trooper Brent Miller. There is at least one impound lot for each barracks. All vehicles stored there are documented and categorized, and the storage is governed by ethics rules.

State police don’t charge for the storage of a recovered stolen vehicle, although the victim is responsible for towing fees, Miller said. Judges can later include towing and storage fees in restitution if the perpetrator is caught and convicted, he said.

Sibert also said her office seeks restitution for towing and storage fees.

Even if the victim can pay, prosecutors must approve the release of a stolen vehicle before its owner can get it back. Miller said he realizes that can be tough on the owner, but the vehicle needs to be treated as evidence in a criminal case like victim’s belongings in other types of crimes.

That doesn’t help Haynes, whose life has been a bigger challenge since she can’t get her car back.

“I have to walk to the grocery store. Everywhere I want to go, I have to walk or beg for a ride. I’ve missed multiple doctor’s appointments,” she said. “I just can’t get around now.”

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Daniel Walmer covers public safety for The Sentinel. You can reach him by email at dwalmer@cumberlink.com or by phone at 717-218-0021.