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Prosecutor starts new vehicle forfeiture program

By Pat Maurer

Review Correspondent

According to a letter dated August 15, Clare County Prosecutor Michelle Ambrozaitis “is implementing a new vehicle forfeiture program” , with a target date of October 1, for repeat offenders “arrested for operating (a vehicle) while intoxicated, operating while under the influence of a controlled substance, or driving while license suspended causing injury or death offenses.”

In an email Wednesday, Ambrozaitis said, “We are putting the finishing touches on the program and will unveil it with a press release. We should have releases ready to go by the end of this week.”

She added that although the target date is October 1 to implement the program, “realistically it will be within the first two weeks of October.”

Ambrozaitis went on, “We are finishing up the program manual; we have to finish tailoring the forms to our county, then train the officers on the program. We will review the program materials at our next law enforcement meeting, which is the first Tuesday of the month.”

The prosecutor’s letter went out to Clare County towing companies offering a chance to opt into the program which would pay $100 plus $3.00 per loaded mile. Only those companies who “opt into” the program would be called for towing on those types of traffic stops on a rotating basis.

The letter stated that the Sheriff’s Department would be storing the seized vehicles for forfeiture.

Eight towing operations in the county have opted into the program: Hamilton’s Towing, Art’s Towing, Farwell Wrecker, Snoopy’s Towing Mid Michigan Towing, Clute’s Towing, Double T Towing and Mid State Towing, according to a September 1 letter to the companies from the prosecutor.

Russ Hamilton of Hamilton’s towing said, “I honestly don’t think this will generate a lot of business, but it is just good to take the repeat offenders off the road. I don’t have any problems with the program. I don’t think they should have set rates, but it is a good idea. Now they will have to have, or build a secure place to meet State standards to store the vehicles.”

Dave Clute of Clute’s Garage and Wrecker Service said, “The program is so new, I have no idea how it will work. The price set was lower than usual. This is trying to take the “weapon” away from repeat offenders and that good. Having the Sheriff’s Department store the vehicles is in competition with companies that ‘lock down’ vehicles.” He said one of those companies is Holden and Holden of Farwell.

Ken Holden said he had heard about the program last spring. “We don’t store vehicles, but we do lock them down at residences. We average around ten at any one time and most are for 90 days, although we have had lock-downs for as long as a year.” He agreed that storing vehicles by the Sheriff’s Department would be in competition with their business. “I’m not sure where they would be stored,” he said.

Sheriff John Wilson said the county is planning to build a secure impound lot on the west side of the county complex.  “We already have a fenced in area near the pole buildings and already have approval from the city to use that are to store vehicles until the new impound lot is completed,” he said. The department will get the storage fees and forfeited vehicles, which will eventually be sold.

One firm, Fox Wrecker Service, Inc., of Harrison, has concerns about the new program. Darla Fox, co-owner of Fox Wrecker with her son Roger Fox, said she did not sign a contract for the program. “Why would I want to sign anything that would cut my throat,” she said in an interview Monday. “I can’t believe that the others (towing companies) did it. They start setting your prices.”

She said she was “sort of surprised” when she received the letter about the new program. “Maybe Clare County is hurting on expenses but the whole state is in the same position,” she said. “I am still trying to figure out how they came up with this.”

She said their rates “aren’t necessarily more or less, unless we use special equipment.” She added, “We usually charge $100 for an impound, it’s sometimes higher and sometimes lower depending on the fuel and special services, and, based on what a person can afford to pay.” She added that they work with people and have always worked with the police department and other county departments. “We support the local economy too. I support local organizations like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.”

She said their business is different from the other towing companies because they are larger with six trucks, have a different type of phone service, higher costs and higher insurance. “Most of the others operate with cell phones and only have one or two trucks,” she said.

“It still comes back to ‘I don’t sign contracts’,” she said.

She also objected to the Sheriff’s Department storing the vehicles. “We now store impounds. They want to store them on the third offense. It will hurt our business. Either way, they are taking the “parking away from us.”