Seizing cars in Decatur
Mayor supports stricter ordinance with success of Athens’ law
By Evan Belanger
The success of an Athens law that impounds vehicles driven by unlicensed motorists is encouraging Decatur Mayor Don Kyle to support an even stricter ordinance.
The Athens ordinance took effect Aug. 10 and snaked 299 vehicles off the street in less than four weeks. Police averaged nearly 18 vehicles per day.
To retrieve vehicles, owners must pay fines, towing fees, a $25 administrative fee and show proof of liability insurance. Only a licensed driver can get the vehicle out of impound.
Since the law took effect, one Athens towing company employee said the rate of car accidents has decreased dramatically, but towing services are busy with impoundments.
That success is encouraging Kyle, who hopes to present his tougher ordinance to the City Council this fall.
“In Decatur, we want people driving who are eligible to drive and who are insured to protect other drivers if they make a mistake,” he said. “This is a doable goal.”
While the city has not released a draft of the proposed ordinance, Kyle said it will likely include provisions for towing the vehicles of unlicensed and uninsured drivers.
He also said his version will have more aggressive fees than the one in Athens — though the fees are yet to be agreed upon.
A final departure from the Athens ordinance concerns what to do with motorists whose vehicles are impounded. In Athens, the police offer the subject a ride home, but Kyle said Decatur police will not be required to do the same.
“We may offer to call someone, but we’re not going to run a taxi service,” he said. “And we’re not going to occupy a police officer’s time waiting with them.”
Despite the successful numbers in Athens’ ordinance, critics maintain the new law unfairly targets illegal immigrants, who do not have the ability to obtain a driver license or insurance.
According to one Athens towing company employee, a majority of the vehicles impounded since the new law took effect do belong to illegal immigrants.
Kyle commented on the controversy in an interview with The Daily in July, saying his intent is not to target any particular group other than unlicensed, uninsured drivers. He said he felt it was his duty as mayor to enforce the laws already on the books.
“If we stop people that either don’t have a license or can’t prove they have insurance, they’re in violation of the law,” he said. “If we let them get back in that car and drive off, we’re aiding and abetting their violation.”
Concerns over the proposed ordinance involve the logistics of impounding the high volume of vehicles anticipated if the ordinance is approved.
Already this year, Decatur police have issued more than 2,100 citations to drivers without a license or proof of insurance or both.
Over the past three years, the Decatur Police Department issued an average of 10 citations a day for the violations.
That volume could create a strain for local towing companies, said Mike Turner, owner of McBride Wrecker Service in Decatur.
Most cannot handle more than 30 to 50 cars at a time, he said.
If owners do not pick up their cars quickly enough, it could create a problem.
“None of us have huge lots, so it’s going to put a strain on everyone’s storage facilities, but mostly I feel it’s a positive,” Turner said.
Other concerns involve what the standard towing and storage fees will be. Kyle said the fee amounts will not be written into the ordinance, but he would like the towing companies to agree on a uniform rate.
Towing company owners say that could be costly for them, especially if they are forced to deal with many vehicles that are never claimed. Just to declare the vehicle abandoned costs at least $100 in filing fees, said Susie Fisher, owner of B&W Wrecker Service in Decatur, but some vehicles are worth only about $50 when sold for junk.
“We lose money on these junk cars,” she said. “There’s a lot of different things that go into it, and I don’t think it should be up to the mayor what I charge.”
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