City auctions off man’s stolen car

In a series of unfortunate events over the course of two months, Michael Midden’s car was stolen, recovered, impounded for exorbitant fees, and, ultimately, auctioned off, never to be seen again.

Let’s start Midden’s saga from the beginning. Last August 31, Midden’s 1997 Honda Civic was stolen a few blocks from his home in Ashbury Heights. After Midden filed a police report, authorities managed to find his car three days later.

This good news should have been the end of Midden’s story. It wasn’t. By a longshot.

Midden couldn’t pick up the car in the 20 minutes allotted time for vehicle theft recovery, so The City’s towing contractor, Auto Return, hauled his car away.

When Midden went to pick up his car, he was told it would cost $500 to get it back. Wishing to contest the fine, Midden decided to leave the car with the towing company and dispute the fees with The City.

Except The City wasn’t responsive.

After numerous unanswered calls to the police phone number Midden was instructed to call, he mailed a formal complaint to the Hall of Justice. After a month he still had no response. During this time, daily storage fees of $61.25 a day were quickly adding up.

After waiting a month and a half, Midden decided to check in with Auto Return.

They told him his car had been auctioned off October 12. Apparently, this is legal.

According to the California vehicle code, a towing company can auction a vehicle off without notifying the owner if it is appraised at less than $4,000. Auto Return appraised Midden’s Honda at “a couple of hundred dollars less,” according to Midden.

When Midden unsuccessfully contested the auction in small-claims court, Auto Return’s attorney threatened to sue Midden for $1,100 in unpaid storage fees.

The Ex reported that Auto Return sent a letter to Midden stating that most cities don’t release towed vehicles for free, but insurance plans usually reimburse the cost to recover the car if it’s been stolen. Legally, Auto Return can begin the process of auctioning off a vehicle if it stays unclaimed for just three days.

Auto Return Vice President Dan Scanlan wrote to Midden:

“Had you simply contacted us to discuss your situation prior to the car being sold at public auction on October 12, the outcome may have been different.”

Supervisor Scott Wiener has said he is “looking into” the “extremely unfair” current tow-away policy.

Until then, Midden rides Muni.