A Washington state towing company must compensate a former U.S. Navy sailor for selling his car while he was deployed, the state’s Attorney General’s Office announced last week.

The case began after Bethel Garage, Inc., a towing company located near the Navy bases in Kitsap County, Washington, towed the sailor’s car in December 2018, according to the AG’s office.

But the sailor, identified in local media reports as submariner Vincent Rowell, was deployed at the time.

He was assigned to the fast-attack submarine Connecticut and left the car with a friend during a deployment, Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Brionna Aho told the Kitsap Daily News this week.

The car, which was later involved in an accident, was towed and sold, according to the publication.

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Bethel Garage failed to check a database to determine whether the towed vehicle was owned by a servicemember, the attorney general’s office said.

In auctioning the deployed sailor’s vehicle, Bethel Garage violated the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act, federal law that provides several protections to troops, including from having their property sold at auction while on active duty.

“Despite operating in a region that is home to thousands of active-duty service members, Bethel had no policies to comply with SCRA nor did it check a free, publicly available Department of Defense database to see if service members owned any vehicles going to auction,” the AG’s office said.

The sailor’s car, a 2016 Hyundai Elantra, was sold at auction for $5,200, according to local media reports.

The court order filed this month “will return money from the sale of the car at the auction to the sailor as well as an additional $2,000 to compensate him for a year when he did not have a vehicle,” the AG’s office said.

Washington has a nearly identical state law to match the federal legislation, according to the AG.

“The law is clear — towing companies have an obligation to determine whether a car belongs to a member of the military,” Attorney General Robert Ferguson said in a statement. “When our service men and women are deployed away from home and family, they should not need to worry whether their possessions are safe. There are specific laws that protect our service members, and I will enforce them.”

The AG’s press release announcing the case’s resolution notes that Bethel Garage’s owners made immediate changes to comply with state and federal law after being contacted about the sailor’s complaint.

The Kitsap Daily News quoted Bethel Garage’s operations manager, Ron Jake, as saying the company was unaware of such laws, and that authorities “did a poor job of communicating” the law to “the people that it affected.”

The company began following the law when they became aware of such requirements, Jake noted.

“I instantly started doing it,” Jake was quoted as saying. “I am absolutely very supportive of the military. Any time I see one in uniform I always thank them for their service.”

Ferguson’s office sent a letter to more than 400 tow truck operators in September, reminding them of their legal obligations

“Unfortunately, some tow truck operators do not comply with the law,” the letter states. “My goal is not to file lawsuits. My goal is to ensure that servicemembers’ rights are protected.”

Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at geoffz@militarytimes.com.

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