- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2003

District officials have a new law to help them remove the gray Dodge Dynasty with rusting wheels on Howard Road SE or the red wrecked Mercury on New York Avenue NE and the hundreds of other abandoned vehicles around the city.

Leslie Hotaling, director of the city’s Public Works Department, said the law also reduces the amount of time the city must hold a vehicle and clarifies the legal meaning of abandoned or dangerous vehicles.

Municipal wreckers can now tow an abandoned vehicle left for more than 24 hours on public ground or left more than 30 days on private property if it meets at least two of four conditions — no tags, broken down, extensive damage or vermin infestation.

A dangerous vehicle, which now can be towed without notice, is defined as one that harbors rats and other pests, has exposed glass or metal shards or can entrap a child.

The law also allows city crews to tag a vehicle and tow it from public property in 24 hours, instead of having to wait at least six days. And crews can tow an abandoned vehicle from private land 45 days after mailing a warning to the property owner.

If the property owner consents, the vehicle can be taken immediately after a notice is placed on the car. Crews can then remove a dangerous vehicle from private land immediately after placing a notice.

The law also allows the city to impound vehicles for shorter periods of time, said Mary Myers, spokeswoman for the Public Works Department. If a vehicle has no visible identification, the city can auction or scrap it within 24 hours.

The change should clear up clogged impound lots, she said.

“We are always at or near capacity, primarily because the District has been forced to hold on to these vehicles for 45 days until the last owner of record is notified,” Miss Myers said.

The law also increases the penalties for abandoning vehicles in the District.

For example, an owner who already has had an abandoned or dangerous vehicle towed from a public place could receive a $500 fine or 90 days in jail.

Cmdr. Winston Robinson Jr. of District 7 said the law will help eliminate the number of abandoned cars in Southeast, where the problem is especially bad.

But the public health hazard extends across the city, Miss Hotaling said. The Public Works Department each month receives 2,400 to 2,600 complaints about deserted cars.

Abandoned cars also tempt car thieves, said Detective Daniel Straub of the police department’s auto theft unit.

Towing abandoned cars in the District has been at the center of three recent municipal scandals.

The Washington Times reported in 2001 that a D.C. inspector general’s audit found some police officers conspired with towing companies to impound cars illegally.

The Times also reported that year that the city auditor’s office discovered the Public Works Department altered statistics about how well it removed abandoned cars and perhaps mismanaged revenue from the sales of impounded vehicles.

Right now, D.C. officials are investigating the city’s lease of an impound lot in Prince George’s County, according to new reports.

Ms. Hotaling said miscommunications between police and the Public Works Department caused many of the record-keeping problems and that the relationship has improved.

Cmdr. Robinson indicated he agrees.

“I think over the past six to eight months there’s been a very, very positive change in their assistance in these areas,” he said.

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