The Rest of the Story – Denver’s Abandoned/Confiscated Vehicle Process

Danger! Danger! Very Esoteric Post! Beware!

NOTE: Over the next several days (weeks), I will append sections of this post with information, observations that I believe to be relevant to the subject matter. Those supplemental “gems” will appear in blue.

The imbroglio with regard to the impoundment of an active duty Iraq War veteran’s vehicle, has become heady fodder for Peter Boyles, whose morning show on KHOW radio has trudged through this particular saga for days.

The proverbial nutshell provides the following: Airman Brian Furman was stopped by a Denver Police officer for a broken headlight. Furman had just returned from a 13-month tour in Iraq, had just purchased the car–a 2004 Subaru–from a fellow soldier. Long story short, the officer asked for Furman’s license, proof of insurance, etc., and determined that Furman’s driver’s license had expired. Furman argued that Federal law provides a grace period for military personnel to renew their licenses, but the officer was hearing none of it. In spite of Furman’s service to his country, in spite of Furman’s contention that Federal law prevailed with regard to renewal of his driver’s license, (and, I’ve found no authoritative data to support Furman’s contention) the officer chose to invoke his discretionary authority under Denver Revised Municipal Code (DRMC) Section 54-811 (10), which is the codification of Initiative 100, passed by the people in August, 2008. This section of the DRMC speaks to drivers of vehicles who do not posses a valid operator’s license, specifically addresses “illegal alien[s]” driving without a valid operator’s license and, as I noted, gives the “attending police officer” the discretion to issue a summons to the offender or, yes, impound the vehicle. DRMC Section 54-813 (c) provides that if a vehicle is impounded under DRMC 54-811 (10), described above, a $2,500 bond must be posted in the city’s favor and said bond shall be held for one year and will be forfeited if the vehicle is again operated by an unlicensed driver within that year.

So, whether or not you believe the “attending police officer” in this case to be an asshole of the first order, or you believe that he was simply doing his duty, using his discretion in impounding Furman’s car, the consequence of that act created a multiplicity of onerous issues for Airman Furman which, for an entire week, were detailed on the Boyle’s morning talk show on KHOW.

Long story short, Furman’s vehicle was released to him yesterday, with the charges for the impoundment and storage being waived by the manager of safety, as provided by DRMC Sec. 54-813 (b), with the exception of a $400 charge assesed for… Who knows?

Now, to more fundamental issues with regard to Denver’s processing of abandoned/confiscated vehicles.

Abandoned and confiscated vehicles for which no owner or lien holder is forthcoming–as the vehicle sits in the impound yard, accumulating daily storage charges–are eventually (DRMC 54-816 (b)) “delivered” to the manager of general services for disposal. “Disposal” of the vehicle can take four forms: sale at public auction; conversion to scrap; sale by sealed bid; or conversion of the vehicle for use by the Denver Police Department. Undertaking any of the four options requires the manager of general services to “…[take] into consideration environmental protection and the recycling of resources.”

Okay. “…environmental protection and the recycling of resources…” Let’s talk about this codified requirement for a moment. Suffice it to say, my experience with the disposal of abandoned/confiscated vehicles by Denver is extensive. The every-other-Wednesday auctions of these vehicles by the Purchasing Division of the Department of General Services, enables the grossly unpleasant specter of putting fume-spewing, most likely unsafe, used and abused vehicles back on the streets of Denver without regard for “…environmental protection and the recycling of resources.” If you don’t believe me, just attend one of the auctions. Indeed, the “terms” of the sale for these vehicles sets-forth the following provisions:

All vehicles, including City surplus vehicles, are sold “As Is, Where Is” with no warranty or guarantee expressed or implied.  …All abandoned/confiscated vehicles are sold as “tow aways” and without an emission test or 45-day permit. If you buy an abandoned/confiscated vehicle, you are responsible for having the vehicle emission tested. …Be advised that Denver Motor Vehicle will NOT issue temporary permits for vehicles sold as “tow aways.”

Okay. It’s the “honor system” with regard to the new owners having these vehicles emission tested. Or, it’s the “dishonor system” of simply slapping dealer plates or, indeed, stolen plates on these vehicles and going your merry way. After all, if you’ve paid only three or four-hundred dollars for one of these heaps, why bother with the emission nonsense. When the car poops-out, hell, your investment was minimal, the junker got you where you wanted to go for a few months and when it dies there are no regrets in just parking the damned thing, knowing the city will probably impound the car again, maybe sell it again and… Well, the vicious cycle is obvious.

Of course, there are responsible folks–dealers and just plain folks–who attend these auctions in order to get a deal on a reasonably well-kept vehicle that can be resold on a lot or given to a son or daughter who’ll use the car to go to school, college, the mall, wherever. These responsible folks will follow the rules, get the vehicle emission tested, title it and marvel at the “deal” they were able to get at the impound lot auction sale.

It was no secret, in my experience, that may of the vehicles sold at the impound lot were purchased specifically for transport to Mexico, where regulation of things like emission control and titling are not something one need be concerned with. And, it was obvious that many of the attendees at the auctions were, um–let me be gracious here–most likely not American citizens and, in many case, used surrogate buyers–those with a valid driver’s license (you have to provide your driver’s license to the auction personnel in order to buy a car) to complete the purchase. These most-likely-not-American-citizens carried rolls of cash in their pockets, handed over the cash to the surrogate buyers when pay-up time arrived. I read some time ago, that Mexico was restricting the number of  “used” vehicles entering that country from the United States. Whether that restriction is still in-force, or whether that restriction has put a damper of the above described practice is unsure.

The Hickenlooper administration revels in “Green Initiatives,” from everything to disposal of dog poop in our parks to LEED certification for buildings. One would think, or at least hope, that Green scrutiny would be applied to the sale of junkers from the city’s impound lot. So far, I don’t believe the Hick and minions give a damn about what is driven, pulled, pushed, towed out of the impound lot after the every-other-Wednesday sale.

There is a requirement, DRMC 54-816 (c) that requires the proceeds of the sale of impounded vehicles be used to “…satisfy the claim of the city for such charges or removal and storage of the vehicle…the balance, if any, of the proceeds shall be paid into the…general fund…”

This section of the DRMC, quite rightly, requires that a divvying up of the proceeds be made; that the impound facility be directly compensated for the charges and storage fees accrued by the impound lot. This requirement of the DRMC, to my knowledge, has never been fulfilled. Proceeds from the auctions are deposited directly into a general fund account. Whether or not the Budget Office undertakes this divvying-up is uncertain. I suspect it doesn’t. The problem, of course, is if a vehicle sells at auction for $300 and the accumulated charges and storage fees amount to, oh, say a $1000, then what’s there to divvy? How do you divvy a net loss of $700. But, again, this doesn’t happen. This section of the DRMC is either archaic or just simply impracticable to enforce. The logical question here becomes, “Well, why did the impound lot keep a vehicle that, in all likelihood, would absolutely not provide a reasonable return on the investment the city had made in that car–towing fees, impound charges, storage charges? Why would the impound lot retain a vehicle for over thirty days, with charges accruing daily against that vehicle, knowing the moment it was towed across the threshold of  the impound lot that they had a losing proposition on their hands; that they’d lose their ass on the sale of the vehicle? The answer, naturally, of course, resides in something called “due process;” something that is spelled-out, step by step in the DRMC. Hopefully, in the next few days I’ll get to this “due process” requirement. A requirement, by the way, that according to my calculations, can see a vehicle tarry in the impound yard for up to fifty or more days.

Yeah, I know. I know. If any city budget guy/gal is reading this–fat chance!–they’re muttering something like, “You moron. The vehicle impound operation is budgeted via the general fund. It’s not an enterprise fund. So, what’s the difference if the money is divvied up or not; it all goes into the general fund.” Well, the difference is, the DRMC specifies how auction proceeds are to handled–the divvying up part. And, oh, by the way… The personnel complement for the vehicle impound operation amounts to $3 million plus change. And, of course, there are other costs for the operation not included in the personnel complement. Anybody wanna give me odds the vehicle impound operation would not survive the year if it depended on the DRMC-specified divvying up of auction proceeds to pay its way?

There is also a section of the DRMC, Section 54-816 (d), that requires the department of general services (the purchasing division) to sell no impounded vehicle for less than the accumulated charges and storage fees accrued during the vehicles repose in the impound lot. If the total of those charges and fees is not realized by the amount bid at auction, then the ordinance requires that the vehicle “may” be declared sold to the city and “…placed in the custody of the department (general services) for the sole benefit and use of the city.” Once again, this section of the DRMC is either archaic or impracticable. In my experience, there has never been any effort on the part of the seller (the purchasing division of general services) to comply with this code requirement.

In actuality, the standard practice over the years–it may have changed–was that no vehicle be sold for less than $50. No, it didn’t matter what charges had accrued during the vehicle’s repose in the impound lot–$1,000, $1,500, whatever–the bottom line at auction was $50. The bottom line: get the damned vehicles out of the impound yard, sell them for whatever you can get, ’cause, by golly, by gee, we’ve got three vehicles waiting for the space in the impound lot once occupied by that $50 loser. Get ‘em in, get ‘em out.

Lord, I could go on. But, I’ve probably hit some of the high points with regard to the sale and disposition of abandoned/confiscated vehicles by the City and County of Denver. And, as always, I’ve gone on too long here. But, if the City Council is to take up the codified operational requirements of the process the city utilizes to dispose of abandoned/confiscated vehicles, then, I hope, I’ve provided a little food for thought; a little nudge in the right direction. There are certainly more nudges to be made with regard to this codified process. But, hell, I guess I’ve got better things to do right now.

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4 Responses to The Rest of the Story – Denver’s Abandoned/Confiscated Vehicle Process

  1. Another outstanding post George. Nice to know SOMEONE understands and appreciates all these nuances. Regulations are like kudzu, they tend to grow until they’re choking out everything – including common sense. The funny thing is – all these ‘abandoned’ cars were oh-so-carefully REGISTERED at least once. I wonder how it might work if said heaps were simply towed to the last-registered address and left THERE. Seems only fair to me, but then I believe in cleaning up my own messes… :-D

  2. georgeindenver says:

    Thanks, Doog. The post is rather convoluted and, admittedly, not up to normal standards. But, then, if one wades through the Denver Revised Municipal Code sections that address the vehicle impound and disposal process, one will, most likely, conclude the same, i.e. convoluted. Additionally, many sections of the relevant Code are archaic and not, as a practical matter, adhered to by city personnel.

    Yes, most of us take the responsibility for cleaning up our own messes. Would that the city embrace the same philosophy with regard to the vehicle impound and disposal process.

  3. wyojavman says:

    Hey Geore, nice post. I understand your frustration with the city and all the due proccess rights, but a question I have is, what would you have the city do with all the cars that fail to bring as much as the fee’s they have levied against it? I think its wrong for anybody to not clean up after themselves, especially in the matters of automobiles, but I for one am fine with the city selling them for whatever they can get for them. I would be more frustrated if they decided to open a salvage yard and compete with private enterprise, or lose more money trying to dispose of them. I dont like spending tax money to clean up others messes, but isnt that the habit of gov these days in many aspects of life? Next thing you know they are going to force me to help pay for health care for people who had no problem buying everything from Bigmacs to Ipods, and every digital channel under the sun, but couldnt budget in a doctor visit.What ever happened to personal resposibility.

    • georgeindenver says:

      Thanks for your comment, Wyojavman. To answer your question, short and simple: Crush the muthas, turn ‘em into scrap, send ‘em to clunker heaven. The city, as a moral authority of sorts, can redeem themselves and keep these road-unworthy vehicles OFF the road. Plain and simple resolution.

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