By Mike De Felice
Kitsap News Group
PORT ORCHARD – Imagine being deployed in the military serving your county, then finding out your car back home has been sold at auction without your knowledge.
That is what happened to Vincent Rowell, a sailor who was serving at sea in the Pacific, according to the state attorney general’s office. Bethel Garage auctioned off the serviceman’s car before checking to see if the vehicle was owned by a service member as required by law, the AG’s office said.
A settlement between the towing company and state was filed in Kitsap County Superior Court on Dec. 16. The agreement calls for the Port Orchard towing company to return to Rowell the money made by the sale of the car at auction, along with an additional $2,000 to compensate the sailor for a year when he did not have a vehicle, according to the AG’s office.
Bethel Garage Inc. operates Bethel Towing in Port Orchard and Town and Country Towing in Gig Harbor.
“When our servicemen and women are deployed away from home and family, they should not need to worry whether their possessions are safe,” state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said. “The law is clear — towing companies have an obligation to determine whether a car belongs to a member of the military.”
Ron Jake, operations manager of Bethel Garage, says the law may be clear but he had no clue it existed.
“Ignorance [of the law] is no excuse — we know that — but basically the industry was unaware that we were required to check and see whether or not a vehicle we were going to process was owned by military personnel,” Jake said.
“I first learned about the law when I was served by the attorney general’s office with a lawsuit,” he said.
In 2018, Rowell was a submariner on the USS Connecticut. He was sent into service and left his car with a friend. The vehicle was later involved in an accident. After the accident, the car was towed and eventually sold at auction in December that year, said attorney general’s office communications director Brionna Aho.
The attorney general’s office asserted Bethel Garage violated the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), which has a similar counterpart in state law. The act provides protection to active-duty service members, including from having their property sold at auction while on active duty. The law requires companies to obtain a court order before selling vehicles owned by active-duty service members at auction, according to the AG’s office.
What Bethel Garage should have done in this case is do a search of the vehicle’s information records to find out the registered owner’s name, Aho said. The next step was to run the owner’s name through a free, publicly available Department of Defense database to see if a servicemember owned the vehicle that was headed to auction, she added.
Those steps apparently were not taken before Rowell’s car was placed on the auction block. Despite the company’s run-in with the state, Jake said he agrees with the law protecting the rights of active-duty military.
“I totally support and understand the whole idea behind it. I have no problem whatsoever with it. The thorn in my side is the fact that when the law was introduced, they did a poor job of communicating it to the people that it affected,” Jake said.
As soon as the towing company became aware of the requirement, those steps were made, the businessman said.
“I instantly started doing it. I am absolutely very supportive of the military. Anytime I see one in uniform I always thank them for their service.”
The Bethel Garage case is part of the AG office’s ongoing Military and Veterans Initiative to protect Washington’s active-duty service members and veterans. The initiative involves informing military members about their legal rights, promoting their access to civil legal service and enforcing legal protections designed to protect those associated with the military.