A deployed Navy SEAL must have been shocked to learn upon his return home to the U.S. that his 1992 Toyota Land Cruiser and 1987 Toyota 4Runner were no longer parked at the military base where he left them. The vehicles had, in fact, been towed by Steve’s Towing Inc., in Virginia Beach, a prominent military hub on Virginia’s coast. Even more startling, the tow company had already auctioned off the vehicles without first obtaining court orders, in violation of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). And this SEAL was far from the only service member victimized.
That’s the sum and substance of the details in the consent agreement between the Department of Justice and Steve’s Towing, which was filed on Good Friday along with a brief memorandum in support from the government. The first indication of this resolution of the civil case came on March 8, when a notice of settlement hit the court docket.
According to the DOJ, six other “aggrieved servicemembers” were likewise affected by the illegal practice of Steve’s Towing, as the complaint put it, “fail[ing] to obtain a court order prior to auctioning off a servicemember’s vehicle” after racking up storage lien fees, transferring the ownership of the vehicles into the company’s name, and depriving the military member of “his or her right to have a court decide whether to postpone the sale or adjust the amount of the fees charged to the servicemember.”
In the case of the member of SEAL Team 2, the DOJ complaint said, the evidence in the Land Cruiser “in the form of a duffel bag of military uniforms and a Naval Special Warfare Development Group Sniper challenge coin” did not stop the tow company from illegally auctioning off the vehicle.
Before the October 2019 deployment, the Navy SEAL — “an active duty member of the United States Navy continuously since about March 19, 2013” — “parked his 1992 Toyota Land Cruiser HZJ73 and 1987 Toyota 4Runner, both of which had Arizona license plates and registrations, in a parking lot at the intersection of Helicopter and Cove Roads across from SEAL Team 2’s headquarters at JEB Little Creek.”
Steve’s Towing towed the vehicles in January 2020 and in a month’s time, on Feb. 7, Steven E. Gilliam, identified in the complaint as the “President, Officer, and Director of Defendant Steve’s Towing,” reported to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles that the company had “enforced its two $970 storage liens on the SEAL Team member’s Land Cruiser and 4Runner by purchasing both vehicles from itself for $500 each.”
Gilliam “transferred ownership of both of the SEAL Team member’s vehicles into the company’s name,” the complaint said.
According to the recently filed consent order, which highlighted the cases of six other military members, Steve’s Towing engaged in a “pattern or practice of violating Section 3958 of the SCRA, 50 U.S.C. § 3958, and had no policies, practices, or procedures in place to ensure SCRA compliance.” As a result, Steve’s Towing, Gilliam, company employees, agents, officers and representatives are blocked from enforcing storage liens “on the personal property and effects of SCRA-protected servicemembers without a court order, during a period of military service or within ninety (90) days of a period of military service.”
The consent agreement will require the tow company to develop policies that comply with the law, such as: running a VIN number on a vehicle before enforcing a storage lien; searching the Department of Defense Manpower Data Center website by last name and Social Security Number, if known, to determine whether the vehicle belongs to a military member; and filing an affidavit of military service with the court when the company “pursues a storage lien action in court and an SCRA-protected [vehicle] owner.”
If or when the court signs off on the agreement, Steve’s Towing will be on the hook for $67,500 to compensate the 7 military members, up to $12,500 for similarly situated military members, and a $10,000 civil penalty “to vindicate the public interest.”
“This Consent Order shall be in effect for a period of five (5) years from its date of entry, after which time this case shall be dismissed with prejudice,” the agreement noted. “The United States may move the Court to extend the duration of this Consent Order in the interests of justice.”
DOJ Civil Rights Division Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement that this outcome will compensate each military member whose vehicle was “illegally taken” while they served the country.
“This case began with a member of a Navy SEAL team who returned home from an overseas deployment, only to find that a towing company had auctioned off two vehicles that he had parked at a military base,” Clarke noted.
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