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State says police are breaking the law by refusing to fill out towing paperwork

The result? Drivers lose time and money as they struggle to find their cars
Posted at 9:40 PM, Jul 27, 2023

WEST VALLEY CITY — Utah officials and lawmakers say some police departments are breaking the law by refusing to do paperwork that helps people find out where their car has been towed.

In some cases, fines rack up to thousands of dollars before people find their vehicle.

FOX 13 News found 573 cases from October 2022 through June 2023 in which a complaint was filed with the Utah State Tax Commission against police, usually by a tow company.

Some state officials estimate the true number of cases is perhaps double or triple the reported figure because some don’t know how or where to report complaints. Some tow companies told FOX 13 News they fear they will no longer be called out to respond to crashes if they report police for breaking the law.

Our review of the 573 cases found approximately two-thirds of police agencies had zero reported cases.

More than half of all reported complaints are against the police departments in West Valley City, Salt Lake City, and Ogden.

THE VICTIMS

Anthony Sanchez was driving in Weber County when he got into a crash on July 7. His story is like hundreds of others. The ambulance picked him up before the tow truck arrived to grab his car.

At the time, he was just trying to stay alive – not worry about bills or impound fees.

“I didn’t care about my car. I was worried about my kids, if I was going to leave them and not be in their lives anymore,” Sanchez said. “I can’t imagine what they would go through if I wasn’t here.”

Upon release from the hospital, the following week he still had no idea where his car was. He had no idea where to start, but he picked up the phone and started making calls.

It took days.

According to state law, Sanchez was supposed to receive notice by mail showing the location of his vehicle, but that’s only if police filled out a Vehicle Impound Report, also known as a TC-540.

Sanchez said he did not receive notice. His first concern was the impound fees. His second concern was his young daughter’s necklace stuck inside the vehicle.

“What are the fees already racked up to, a thousand dollars?” Sanchez said.

Adam Story - Sanchez

Tow companies tell FOX 13 News they have seen Sanchez’s situation play out before. They often receive “cold calls” from crash victims looking for their vehicle.

Utah has 1,510 registered impound yards. Most large cities have dozens of impound yards.

“It’s not good. That is frustrating for our industry,” said Barbara Christensen, president of the Utah Professional Towing Alliance. “Without that form filled out, a vehicle can sit in a tow yard easily for five years without proper paperwork... I take phone calls every day from people trying to find their cars, calling random companies in their area.”

THE LAW

Senator Mike McKell (R-Spanish Fork) sponsored SB109 last year. The bill requires police officers to fill out a Vehicle Impound Report (TC-540) for every law-enforcement tow as of October 15, 2022.

Allan Shinney, the Senior Director of Enforcement for the Utah State Tax Commission, sent a bulletin to all law enforcement agencies in November 2022 reminding police of the law.

“This procedure is necessary to assist citizens to recover their vehicles, if necessary, in a timely manner and to reduce impound fees. It is also necessary to assist in the insurance company's recovery of the motor vehicle if it is declared a total loss.”

McKell said updating the law was a “no brainer,” especially because the form is easy to fill out and it protects drivers.

When FOX 13 News showed him the list of 573 reported cases against law enforcement showing a TC-540 not being filled out, he got angry.

“I don’t think there’s an excuse for this,” McKell said. “I appreciate what law enforcement does, but we have laws for a reason... I think this is something the public should be concerned about.”

Adam Story - McKell

McKell specifically referred to the actions of West Valley City PD, Salt Lake City PD, and Ogden PD as “brazen.”

“Why do they think they’re above following the law?” he asked. “Why do they not want consumers to know where their car is?”

In response, a spokesperson for WVCPD Chief Colleen Jacobs said not all tows called for by police should be considered a “police-requested” tow.

“This means officers complete the form on driver arrests, accidents where the driver is incapacitated and can’t be asked if they want a tow, investigative holds, as well as any State Tax Impound,” the spokesperson wrote. “In cases such as disabled vehicles or vehicles involved in accidents where the vehicle owner has asked for assistance with facilitating a tow, our officers fulfill vehicle owners’ requests using a tow company on the list used by police. The cases are not considered by our department to be police-requested, but rather a customer service effort in which the facilitation of a tow is made at the vehicle owner’s request and therefore not subject to reporting via the TC 540 form.”

McKell and state officials joined tow companies in saying West Valley City’s interpretation of the law is incorrect.

“If you’re ordering a vehicle to be taken to an impound lot, we don’t really care the reason,” said Jason Gardner, a spokesperson for the Utah State Tax Commission. “We just need to know about it, because ultimately the person who suffers if you don’t let us know about it is the owner of the vehicle. They’re the ones who may end up having their car auctioned because they can’t find it.”

“A law-enforcement tow is any tow that is ordered at the behest of a law-enforcement agency or someone on behalf of law enforcement,” said Christensen.

Chief Jacobs’ spokesperson added that West Valley City has not received any complaints about its interpretation of the law.

McKell said that is not true; he has complained personally.

Brent Weisberg, a spokesperson for SLCPD, said the department will review each case and that the Utah State Tax Commission did not properly count each complaint.

"In the event of any formalized complaints, we are committed to diligently working through them once they are identified by the state... we have identified cases that do not fall under our jurisdiction, are duplicative, or that may not require a impound report form."

Weisberg further stated the department has not received "any communication from the Utah State Tax Commission indicating any issues or concerns."

Shinney said that is not true; "Brent (Weisberg) might not have, but Sgt. Richelle Bradley did. They snubbed their noses at us. They didn't care."

Ogden PD has not responded to requests for comment.

“I think they’re lazy,” said Angie Miller, an office manager for AMS Towing. “You have some (officers) that I think are very arrogant, and they think they’re above it... They don’t want to do the extra paperwork.”

THE RECORDING

Earlier this year, Miller recorded a phone call with the Layton Police Department showing what happened when she asked Officer Bruce Armstrong for a copy of the state-required paperwork.

“I hope you’ve never gotten one from us,” Officer Armstrong said.

“You should, because the law changed in October, and we’re supposed to get (a form) with every single one,” Miller responded.

“We’ve never done one,” Officer Armstrong replied. “Imagine I take five crashes a day, and I’ve got to stop what I’m doing and do an impound form on every single crash.”

Adam Story - Angie

State records show just seven complaints against Layton PD. A spokesperson for the department said that’s because officers have since been informed they are required to fill out the Vehicle Impound Report for every tow.

“I don’t know why (Officer Armstrong) would say that,” said Lt. Travis Lyman. “We were going through some growing pains on how to best implement this... We’re not digging out heels in and refusing to do this.”

Lt. Lyman said the department initially “did not anticipate” the downstream effect it would have on drivers if the paperwork was filled out.

Layton’s interpretation of the law was similar to West Valley City. Officers did not feel it was appropriate to do an administrative search of a vehicle in some cases prior to the tow.

McKell said he was disappointed while listening to the recording, and he hopes that it was simply a misunderstanding and an isolated incident.

“If there’s a tow, and law enforcement is involved, the form should be filled out every single time,” McKell said. “That’s the whole point.”

“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal to fill them out,” Gardner said. “We just need to know that the vehicle has been towed. That’s the bottom line.”

Adam Story - Barb

THE FUTURE

Next year, the state could change the law to make the paperwork even more simple to fill out.

In the meantime, lawmakers say they expect every police department to follow the law the way it is now.

If police fail to submit the required paperwork, the Utah Department of Public Safety has set up a website to aid people in finding their vehicles based on information submitted by tow companies: tow.utah.gov.

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