A Dallas towing company has agreed to pay $50,000 as part of an settlement reached with the Justice Department regarding allegations the company illegally sold five service members’ vehicles, Justice announced today.

Justice officials filed the initial complaint Sept. 28, 2020 alleging United Tows, LLC, auctioned off the vehicles without obtaining court orders, in violation of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. One vehicle belonged to now-Senior Airman Fassil Mekete, who was was attending Air Force basic training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, in 2017.

According to Justice officials, when Mekete found out his vehicle had been towed, he contacted United Tows and told them he was out of town on active duty. However, the owner told him she didn’t believe he was in the military; and the company sold his 1998 Toyota Corolla at auction. Before leaving for basic training, Mekete had received permission from the owner of a martial arts studio to leave his car and some personal belongings in the studio’s parking lot, since he no longer had a lease in Dallas.

A subsequent investigation revealed that United Tows allegedly illegally sold at least four other vehicles belonging to service members between Oct. 4, 2014 and April 26, 2019.

Under the proposed settlement, which was filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, United Tows must pay Mekete $20,000. The settlement must be approved by the court.

The four other service members will share an additional $20,000 from United Tows, and the company will pay a $10,000 civil penalty to the U.S. Treasury.

Officials at United Tows, LLC and their attorneys didn’t immediately answer Military Times’ requests for comment. However, the proposed settlement states, “The parties agree that, to avoid costly and protracted litigation, the claims against Defendant should be resolved without further proceedings or an evidentiary hearing.”

United Tows “not only disregarded the legal rights of service members, it made hurtful and dismissive comments about a member’s military service,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, in an announcement Friday.

“We were appalled to learn that this airman came home from basic training to find his car sold at auction,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Prerak Shah, for the Northern District of Texas, in the announcement.

Since 2011, the Justice Department has obtained over $474 million in monetary relief for more than 120,00 service members in its enforcement of the SCRA. The SCRA enforcement is conducted by the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and U.S. attorneys around the country.

Military members and their dependents who believe their SCRA rights have been violated should contact their nearest Armed Forces Legal Assistance Program office.

As part of the negotiated settlement, United Tows has developed SCRA policies and procedures for vehicle sales and disposal, to comply with the SCRA. Among other things, the company is reviewing any information received from the owners or others, for evidence of military service, and examining the vehicle and its contents for evidence of military service such as military paperwork, uniforms or equipment; and searching the Defense Manpower Data Center to identify whether the person is eligible for SCRA protections. If it’s determined the owner is military, the owner can’t sell the vehicle without first obtaining a court order.

United Tows has also developed SCRA training materials for its employees, and provided those materials to Justice officials for review.

Staff reporter Davis Winkie contributed to this report.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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