Car Stolen in Portland? Police Policy Says You’ll Have to Pay a Ransom to Get It Back

Victims of auto theft feel as if they’ve been robbed twice after paying hefty tow fees to get their cars out of impound lots.

Portland tow companies have probably made more than a half-million dollars selling back nearly 4,000 recovered stolen vehicles to their owners this year. (Abby Gordon)

Last month, Josh Leslie walked out of his St. Johns home and realized his car had vanished.

Twelve hours later, police found his 1997 Subaru Legacy in the town of St. Helens. When Leslie went to fetch his stolen car, he learned it had been impounded by a towing company called Grumpy's.

To drive his stolen car off the Grumpy's impound lot, Leslie had to fork over $405, in cash.

"Why are businesses allowed to make a profit off of crime victims?" he asks. "There just seems to be something a little bit wrong with that."

Motor vehicle theft is on a steep rise in Portland—in part because an Oregon Court of Appeals ruling impedes prosecutors' ability to take cases to trial without a confession. Portland now has the third-highest car theft rate per capita of any major U.S. city, according to a WW analysis of FBI crime statistics.

For many victims, a Portland police policy pours salt in the wound: When stolen cars are found, owners have to pay hundreds of dollars to get them back.

And there's one clear winner amid all the losers of cars: the city's contracted towing companies, which have made more than a half-million dollars this year alone from storing stolen cars, according to city records.

Related: In Portland, you can steal cars over and over—and get away with it. Here's how.

Portland Police Bureau policy is to give owners of stolen cars 30 minutes to retrieve their vehicles once cops find them.

Can't get there in half an hour? Police call for a tow.

Victims are often left to the whims of bus schedules or must rely on a ride from a friend. And bureau policy doesn't even require a courtesy call to the owner of the recovered car—it merely suggests officers make one. More than one victim told WW the first call they got was from the tow company.

Police admit the policy revictimizes owners of stolen cars.

"We do recognize that it's a hardship to have the vehicle towed and need to pay to get it out of impound," bureau spokesman Sgt. Chris Burley says. "We'd prefer not to do that. We'd prefer the person's car not to be stolen in the first place."

But police say their hands are tied: The City Council makes the rules, and they just follow them.

The rules may be changing soon. When WW informed Mayor Ted Wheeler of the city's towing policy this week, he pledged to discuss changing the policy with Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw.

"Let's all agree: Making a victim of crime pay $300 or $400 to get their vehicle back is adding insult to injury, period," Wheeler says. "If somebody wants to pick up the vehicle where it is and they're able to do that, that's a common-sense solution. People should at least be able to have that as an option."

(Abby Gordon)

Portland's criminal justice reformers have demanded an end to the criminalization of poverty, noting how fees for minor crimes can ruin people's lives over a misdemeanor charge. But the crippling impact of such property crimes on low-income victims has received far less attention.

The cost of getting a car out of impound can be nearly as much as the value of the stolen vehicle itself. Although some insurance policies will cover the cost of a tow, many people who own old cars buy policies that cover just their liability.

The most commonly stolen cars in Portland are Honda Civics and Accords and Subaru Legacys—mostly models from the late 1990s. Most of those vehicles are worth only several hundred bucks to start with.

Grumpy's charged Leslie $405. His 20-year-old Subaru is worth only about $1,000, according to Kelley Blue Book.

"If [the tow fee] had been less than $200, I would have written it off as bad luck," Leslie says. "But $400 to get a car that had been stolen for less than a day? It just seemed ridiculous."

Tow companies have picked up 3,967 stolen vehicles this year as of Dec. 15. At a minimum, they have made $729,928 from impounding stolen cars and charging their owners to get them back.

The minimum fee that can be charged for towing a stolen car in Portland is $184—that's a $128 hookup and towing fee, a $38 city fee and an $18 dispatch fee—but it is common for tow companies to tack on additional charges for storage and other costs, especially if the victim can't retrieve the vehicle right away.

Just five companies do the vast majority of the city's towing: 21st Century Towing, A & B Towing, Newhouse & Hutchins Towing, Sergeants Towing and Speed's Towing.

(Rosie Struve)

Tow companies are reluctant to discuss their arrangements with the city. WW called the six most frequently used companies, and five declined to comment on the record.

Clark Tenney, president of 21st Century Towing, says his company has towed vehicles for the city for about 20 years—and the owners of stolen cars have always had to pay to retrieve the cars. He says he agrees with victims: The city's policy puts people in a bind.

"There's a few [owners] that get a little frustrated," Tenney says. "You always get a couple who say it's unfair. We agree, but what else can you do?"

In fact, there are other ways to handle recovered cars.

Seattle police leave recovered cars where they find them unless they are illegally parked or pose a threat to public health or safety, or the owner asks to have the vehicle towed.

(Abby Gordon)

"It sucks getting your car stolen," says Seattle police Detective Patrick Michaud. "Paying a few hundred dollars just to get your car back seems a little bit silly."
Part of the reason Seattle police don't tow stolen cars: They don't want to penalize low-income victims of crime.

"If that owner doesn't want to incur that cost, we don't want to force that issue because some people might not have the money to get [their cars] back," Michaud says.

Portland police say they don't follow Seattle's example because the recovered cars could be stolen again.

"The Police Bureau does not leave a recovered stolen vehicle unattended after it is located," Burley says, "because there is the possibility the person who stole the vehicle may return and drive away in the vehicle or the vehicle may not be able to be secured and could be tampered with by other people."

That's cold comfort to Candace Starks.

She's had to pay towing companies to get her 1990 Toyota Camry back—twice.

Candace Starks had to pay about $300 to get her 1990 Toyota Camry out of a tow lot after it was stolen in Northeast Portland—twice. (Henry Cromett)

The first time, in early 2015, police found her Camry a few blocks from her Northeast Portland house—and the tow cost her about $287. The second time, the Toyota disappeared from the parking lot of Cascade Station shopping center in Northeast Portland. A tow truck picked it up in an empty field across the state line in Washington, and Starks shelled out another $300 to get it back.

"They don't care that your car was stolen," Starks says. "It's super-frustrating because something already messed up happened to you and you're having to deal with paying to get your car back. It's kind of cruel."

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