Tacoma towing company sells sailor’s car illegally while he was on aircraft carrier, state says

A Burns Towing driver prepares two abandoned vehicles to be towed from a street in East Tacoma on July 1, 2003. The state sued Burns Towing on Tuesday in Pierce County Superior Court, alleging that the Tacoma company sold a Navy sailor’s car illegally earlier this year while he was deployed on an aircraft carrier. Peter Haley News Tribune file photo
A Burns Towing driver prepares two abandoned vehicles to be towed from a street in East Tacoma on July 1, 2003. The state sued Burns Towing on Tuesday in Pierce County Superior Court, alleging that the Tacoma company sold a Navy sailor’s car illegally earlier this year while he was deployed on an aircraft carrier. Peter Haley News Tribune file photo

A Tacoma towing company sold the impounded car of a deployed Navy sailor, despite state and federal laws preventing such a transaction, the state of Washington has charged in a lawsuit.

The Attorney General’s Office is seeking a permanent injunction against Burns Towing Inc. that would force the company to check that impounded vehicles do not belong to deployed service members. The lawsuit also asks for a $2,000 fine for each violation the company has committed and penalties of $55,000 for the first violation of law and $110,000 for any further violations. The state also is asking that the sailor be compensated for his vehicle being sold.

The suit was filed Tuesday in Pierce County Superior Court. A call seeking comment from Burns Towing was not immediately returned.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Alex Vaughn, 25, had parked his 2011 Chevrolet Malibu at a Tacoma apartment complex in March before being deployed at sea aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis. Burns Towing legally impounded his car, assistant attorney general John Nelson wrote in the lawsuit, but the company never checked to see whether Vaughn was in the military before selling his car.

The Washington State Service Members’ Civil Relief Act and the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act both require lien holders to get a court order prior to selling an impounded item.

A search through a federal database or paying about $35 to a private firm could have easily turned up that Vaughn was an active-duty sailor, Nelson wrote. Instead, Burns Towing sold Vaughn’s car.

Burns Towing was twice told that selling Vaughn’s car was illegal — both by a Navy legal assistance attorney and by a letter from the Attorney General’s Office — but it ignored the first letter and denied wrongdoing the second time.

“We have no record of any notification that (Vaughn) was in the military service at the time,” Burns Towing president Kris Zachary wrote in an email back to the state.

A company placing a lien on property is required to determine whether the owner is deployed with the military before selling the item, Nelson wrote. Also, Vaughn obtained his car loan through Navy Federal Credit Union, which was still the legal owner on his registration, and the credit union only serves current and former active-duty military members.

Because Burns Towing does much of its business in Pierce County, and because the county’s largest employer is Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Attorney General’s Office believes the company might have improperly sold other vehicles belonging to active-duty members of the military.