HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Township officials hope their $1,800 mistake will help lead to clearing up New Jersey’s ambiguous laws regarding when a municipality can sell a car after it has been towed and impounded.
The issue arose several years ago after township police ordered a car towed. Township Committeeman Roger Silva said the owner of the car had a number of overdue parking tickets. After waiting what it thought was the requisite time and giving notice, Township Attorney Robert Sandman said the township sold the car at auction.
The owner then sued the township, Sandman said, saying Hamilton Township was not entitled to sell the vehicle. Silva said the township eventually settled for about $1,800, adding, “It wasn’t a very expensive automobile.”
But ever since then, Sandman said, the suit made the township question what it was doing.
It stopped selling some cars, and he said some tow lots have had problems with unclaimed towed cars building up on their lots.
“There are some statutes that allow you to tow and sell, others allow you to tow but not sell,” Sandman said. He identified six instances where state motor vehicle laws allow a town to sell an impounded car — and three where it cannot.
For instance, if police stop a drunken driver and impound the vehicle overnight, and the owner never claims the car, then research by Sandman suggested the car cannot be sold. But if a car is impounded because it is uninsured, then the owner has 30 days to claim it before the municipality can start the process to auction it off.
To deal with this, Sandman drafted legislation in 2011 to clear up the issue. His proposal would allow a town to sell any vehicle impounded for violations of the state’s motor vehicle statutes.
Under his proposal, owners would have until midnight of the 30th day of the impoundment to claim the vehicle.
Afterward, the municipality would have to give notice of sale to the person who registered the vehicle, anybody with a lien on the title and the general public. The owner could reclaim the vehicle at any time after showing registration and insurance, paying towing and storage costs, and settling any fines, penalties or court costs.
If the town actually sells the car, the municipality would pay off any outstanding costs and give the rest of the money to the owner.
Assemblymen John Amodeo and Chris Brown, both R-Atlantic, introduced the bill in January 2012.
Amodeo said, “What happens is these vehicles are only worth a couple hundred bucks, and they get stuck storing them for an indefinite amount of time.”
Amodeo said he sponsored it to allow towns to clear out their lots, while earning some revenue.
The bill faces an uncertain future. It is not currently sponsored in the state Senate. While it cleared an Assembly transportation committee in October, the bill may not get a floor vote following concerns by Assembly Majority Leader Sheila Y. Oliver, D-Essex, Passaic, over a person potentially losing their car for unpaid parking tickets.
In a letter to Oliver last November, Amodeo and Brown wrote that the state Office of Legislative Service’s research found that a car cannot be sold for parking tickets, but a court can issue a warrant to compel a person to pay the tickets, and the car could be sold to satisfy the warrant.
“We are sure that a person would have to amass a number of tickets to trigger such a warrant,” the legislators wrote. “Practically speaking, a person with a parking ticket should have to worry about losing a car.”
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