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1,600 stolen cars found, victims possibly illegally charged to get them back

Data compiled by City Council President Helena Moreno shows that 1,640 stolen vehicles have been towed by private operators over the past three years.

NEW ORLEANS — A push by the New Orleans City Council to reimburse crime victims who have been forced to pay to retrieve their stolen or carjacked vehicles is going to come with a steep price tag.

Data compiled by City Council President Helena Moreno shows that 1,640 stolen vehicles have been towed by private operators over the past three years, far more than the council anticipated.

After WWL-TV raised the issue in a story about a carjacking victim who had to pay more than $400 last month to retrieve his car from a private lot, Moreno proposed an ordinance to reimburse crime victims.

A former state legislator, Moreno said she was shocked and disappointed that the city wasn’t utilizing a 2017 state law that prohibits crime victims from being charged to recover their property.

The 1,640 vehicles being towed to private lots since the beginning of 2019 was another shock, Moreno said. In addition to the ordinance to reimburse victims, Moreno said she is now planning a budget committee hearing to determine how much money needs to be allotted to cover the anticipated costs.

“The amount of stolen vehicles called in to be towed away by private companies is much greater than anticipated,” Council President Helena Moreno wrote in a statement. “I can only assume that the owners of these stolen vehicles were asked to pay out of pocket to get their cars back. As I’ve repeatedly stated, that’s illegal, and the Council will ensure the City takes the steps to correct.” 

But there's also a compelling reason for the city not to use private towing companies at all. New Orleans police often don’t check inside recovered vehicles before they are towed away by private operators.

That was the case in one recent carjacking spree in which one victim’s car was recovered within 48 hours, but he wasn’t notified until it had been towed. When the man retrieved the car from a private lot in eastern New Orleans, he found it trashed and full of what appeared to evidence that would be useful to detectives.

“When my car was returned to me after I got it out of the private tow yard, inside were a lot of items that were not mine,” the victim said. “A cell phone that was very busted up.  A watch. Some IDs and credit cards from someone who I presume is another victim.”

WWL-TV was at the 5th District police station when the man brought the items – handled with gloves and placed in an envelope – to a detective.

“I just thought that was odd,” the man told the detective. “But I collected all of it and brought it to you.”

“No, I appreciate that, I appreciate that,” the detective responded. “I'm sure it's going to be helpful in some way, shape or form.”

Moreno said that case and others could spark a discussion about changing the protocol for how the police and city handles stolen vehicles that are recovered. 

“That just goes to show that there's a better operational way to tow these vehicles that could lead to solving additional crimes,”  Moreno said.

Council member Joe Giarrusso is on board with the effort, especially finding a way to keep victims from reaching into their own wallet to retrieve their stolen vehicles.

In a statement Giarrusso wrote, “It is unacceptable that victims of these crimes are being victimized twice – first when their vehicle is stolen, and again when they have to pay to get it back. This is the first step to helping some victims receive the justice they deserve.”

Moreno said she is pushing for the local ordinance even though there is already a state law that is supposed to accomplish the same thing.

As for police getting evidence from victims after the fact, the NOPD did not address why vehicles are towed without evidence being collected. The department simply responded that some articles are logged as evidence as they build cases, other articles are returned to the owners.

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