Judge rips sheriff's deputies, bars Detroit towing firm from impounding stolen vehicles
Detroit — A judge on Friday blasted the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office for delaying reports of recovered stolen vehicles in the city as part of a practice that racked up larger tow yard storage bills for motorists.
Retired Wayne County Circuit Judge Robert Colombo said county sheriff's deputies along with a Detroit towing firm, Nationwide Recovery, failed to promptly notify vehicle owners who were unaware of their recovered vehicles' locations.
“There is no attempt to make certain that there are officers on the scene,” he said. “There is a complete failure to make certain that recoveries are timely reported in length. The impact is significant to the owners of the vehicles because the later they are notified, the more the storage fees accrue.”
Colombo said Nationwide Recovery drivers would often directly call on two of the department’s deputies instead of reporting suspected stolen vehicles to Wayne County dispatch. The deputies did not check the vehicle’s information through a Law Enforcement Information Network (LEIN) operator as required.
Colombo then said he would grant the city's request for an injunction against the Detroit towing firm, barring the company from impounding stolen or suspected stolen cars on behalf of sheriff's deputies or anyone deputized by the sheriff's office.
The city had alleged that Nationwide Recovery was working with the county sheriff’s department in a conspiracy to charge excessive fees so that Nationwide could pay car thieves for tips.
“It is deeply troubling that Wayne County Sheriff deputies ignore evidence holds with respect to vehicles that are recovered by them and impounded by Nationwide,” said Colombo, who was hearing the case since it originated in his docket before he retired.
“They are clearly interfering with the investigations of car thefts in the city of Detroit. Since no investigation is generally done by recovering sheriff deputies, it is impossible to determine how much evidence has been lost because of these recoveries.”
While Colombo said the city did not prove that Nationwide Recovery was conspiring with car thieves to recover stolen vehicles, the judge noted “there seems to be evidence to which this court concludes that one of the motivations of Wayne County is to assist Sam Hussein, who sits on the Building Authority for Wayne County and is an owner of Nationwide, and to collect a $75 administrative fee for Wayne County.”
Marc Deldin, an attorney for Nationwide Recovery, said Friday that Colombo’s decision vindicates his client.
“For 18 months, the city, at every opportunity, has engaged in character assassination and accused Nationwide of stealing vehicles,” Deldin said in a statement. “Judge Colombo concluded that the city failed to satisfy the lowest evidentiary burden in the legal system."
The hearing Friday comes amid a series of legal battles over alleged corruption involving law enforcement, tow yards and collision shops.
The city of Detroit had concerns that Nationwide Recovery was recovering vehicles at an alarming rate under highly questionable circumstances. The city suspended Nationwide’s permit on July 19, 2017.
The city also claimed that Nationwide was working with the county sheriff’s office and Highland Park Police to interfere with the Detroit Police Department’s efforts to investigate car theft.
City attorney Charles Raimi said he doesn’t expect any issue with enforcing the injunction.
“I’m sure Wayne County will obey even though they’re not a party,” Raimi said. “If necessary, we can take steps against Nationwide, but I don’t expect that is going to be any problem enforcing this.”
Wayne County Undersheriff Daniel Pfannes responded to the case in a statement Friday, saying he would await a written decision from Colombo.
“While Judge Colombo may have verbalized his findings during the court proceeding, a jurist officially speaks through their written orders,” Pfannes said. “It is my understanding that Judge Colombo will be issuing an order on this matter sometime next week."
Colombo also took issue that as a subcontractor to Martin's Towing, Nationwide Recovery charged owners of recovered vehicles fees that exceeded those outlined by Martin’s Towing, the towing company with a contract with Wayne County.
Those charges included a $225 tow hook-up fee, a $75 administrative fee and $25-a-day storage fee. Nationwide Recovery was also charging fees that Martin’s Towing doesn’t charge, such as a gate fee, motor fee and window wrap fee.
“Nationwide exceeds these charges on almost every case, and no one at the Wayne County Sheriff office cares about it or reviews what is occurring or takes any corrective action,” Colombo said.
Colombo said that the city presented phone contacts between Louay Hussein, operator of Nationwide Recovery and brother of Sam, and a known car thief, in 2016. At question was the timing in some cases between a vehicle being stolen and Nationwide Recovery towing the vehicle.
“Although it is abundantly clear that a recognized car thief ... was having telephone contact and at least one text message with Louay Hussein in 2016, the evidence did not establish that Louay Hussein knew that (the man) was a car thief.”
Louay Hussein previously told the court that when he started the business in 2016, he gave his phone number to anyone who could give him a tip regarding recovering vehicles.
Colombo said the five instances the city provided when a Nationwide Recovery driver or Louay Hussein appeared to recover vehicles after they were stolen — or some before they were reported stolen — represent a small fraction of the company’s recoveries.