Sweetwater law allowed city to take possession of towed vehicles

 

bmedina@elnuevoherald.com

Several drivers whose cars were towed after arrests in Sweetwater say they were never able to recover their vehicles, some of which wound up as city property.

One driver who was arrested by Sweetwater Police in December 2011 sued the city last week for the “wrongful deprivation” of his blue Volkswagen, later sold off by Southland The Towing Company.

“The City permitted, tolerated and caused a custom, policy or practice to conduct unreasonable and illegal detention and seizures and disposal of property against the citizens,” according to the federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Abraham Herbas. “Police officers [believed] they would not be investigated or sanctioned, but instead would be tolerated.”

Another man arrested on charges of stealing cellphones and forgery said a Sweetwater police officer drove him to his home and called a tow truck after spotting his Dodge Ram parked out front. The man was deported to Colombia after serving two years in prison on the charges. His truck became city property.

The complaints about the towing practices in Sweetwater come during a federal criminal probe of the questionable connections between city officials and Southland, which operated under a no-bid, verbal agreement until February. Several sources have said that the FBI is investigating whether officers or other officials received kickbacks in exchange for directing business to Southland.

Federal agents also are contacting individuals whose vehicles were towed after arrests in Sweetwater.

Former Mayor Manny Maroño, arrested in a separate federal corruption case in August, appeared on state records as an owner of the company until 2009, although he continued to represent the business until at least 2010.

El Nuevo Herald and CBS4 have been investigating Southland and its connections in Sweetwater for months.

It’s unclear how many drivers have lost their vehicles after being arrested in Sweetwater, or how many wound up as city property. The city official who oversees the city’s fleet, Guillermo Chez, didn’t return messages on Thursday.

Prior to becoming a city employee in April 2012, Chez worked for Southland as well as other towing businesses that belonged to Maroño. His wife, Anny Chez, is the city’s finance director.

City Attorney Ralph Ventura, who is also an attorney for Southland, said that he was unfamiliar with the city’s forfeiture process and that he didn’t know about the lawsuits against the city.

Sweetwater Police officials said attorney Alejandro De Varona has represented the city in forfeiture cases. De Varona said on Thursday he could not speak about those cases, citing attorney-client privilege.

Sonia Parodi, arrested in September 2011 on charges of dealing in stolen property, filed a class-action lawsuit against the city after her charges were dropped, alleging that Sweetwater’s administrative fine of $500 for recovering towed vehicles is unconstitutional. Parodi also had to pay another $383 to Southland in transportation and storage fees.

Though Parodi’s suit, filed by attorney Ronald Guralnick, was dismissed, Sweetwater commissioners reduced the administrative fine to $250 in early October. The Police Department has also established new directives to make clear when towing a vehicle is justified.

Previously, police officers would call Southland to the tow vehicles of people arrested for driving with a suspended license or drinking in public. Now tow trucks can be called only if the vehicle is considered key evidence in the arrest.

Police spokesman Jorge Fernández de Lara said the new mayor, José M. Díaz, “wants to make sure that the citizens of Sweetwater and visitors here trust that we’re doing correct and legal enforcement of the law.”

In a telephone interview from Medellín, Colombia, Víctor Manuel Mesa said that officers drove him to his Doral home to recover the five cell phones he’d stolen in Sweetwater in September 2010.

“They told me to open the door and I didn’t want to because they were very aggressive,” Mesa recalled. “So they opened the door with a screwdriver.”

He said officers police confiscated cash, two computers and the white Dodge Ram parked in front of his Doral home. His family did not attempt to recover the truck, which eventually became the property of Southland.

Two weeks after obtaining the title, Southland “donated” the truck to Sweetwater’s police department.

“Apparently the city needed extra vehicles,” said Alexander Fox, a Southland attorney. “The cars were donated for a period of time and when the city didn’t need them any more they gave them back.”

According to Herbas’ lawsuit, which was filed by attorney Richard Diaz, Sweetwater ignored several requests for a hearing to recover his vehicle. Diaz said that goes against Florida’s Contraband and Forfeiture Act.

“The act requires the seizing agency [...] to hold a seized asset, in this case, plaintiff’s motor vehicle, until final adjudication by the court,” Diaz wrote in the suit. “Here, there was never any such adjudication. The defendant city merely sold the plaintiff’s vehicle at auction and kept the proceeds.”

But in at least one case, getting a final adjudication that ordered the return of a vehicle to its original owner wasn’t enough to stave off a forfeiture.

Yamile Arango lost two vehicles towed after she was arrested in September 2011, along with Parodi. Although both became property of Southland, the towing company gave one to the City of Sweetwater. Arango said Southland and Sweetwater officials ignored the final adjudication in her favor.

Police officials used her former 2003 Ford Excursion until April, when Sweetwater returned both that vehicle and the Dodge Ram that once belonged to Mesa to Southland.

Fox said he couldn’t comment on whether the forfeitures were properly executed. Fernandez de Lara, the Sweetwater police spokesman, said the agency is in the process of hiring a new attorney to sort out police issues.

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