- Courtesy CSPD
- In February 2017, vehicles were haphazardly parked at the city’s impound lot.
But no inmates are held here. Rather, hundreds of vehicles swept off Colorado Springs’ streets for a variety of reasons fill 18.5 acres of land. Many sit idle for months, even years, until released from evidence, or sold at auction because nobody claims them.
The impound lot, run by the Colorado Springs Police Department, is also a money drain: The department lacks equipment to move vehicles within the lot, resulting in exorbitant towing bills.
That, and other problems, are now receiving CSPD’s attention after the City Auditor’s Office delivered a scathing report in May critical of the towing issue, management oversight, crowding, contracting practices, ineffective communications with citizens trying to claim their towed cars, and deterioration of vehicles held as evidence.
“The evidentiary value of these vehicles stored for very long periods seemed questionable,” auditors wrote, noting most had body damage, weren’t protected from weather and showed signs of interior and exterior degradation. A total of 259 vehicles had been on evidence hold for more than 36 months.
Managing them obviously proves quite a challenge, but CSPD tells the Indy it’s tackling all of the auditor’s recommendations. Below, we examine more audit takeaways, hear how CSPD intends to find solutions, and illustrate what’s needed to bail out a vehicle, or get a sweet deal on one at auction.
Space availableAuditors report that 5,095 vehicles wound up in the impound lot at 2725 E. Las Vegas St. during the 2017 audit period. Most, 64 percent, were released back to their owners.
Vehicles land in impound for various reasons: Their drivers are arrested, vehicles are illegally parked, they pose a traffic hazard, are left behind from hit-and-run crashes, or they’re simply abandoned.
Crowding at the lot became such a problem last year that police issued six “curtailment orders,” which meant the lot refused to accept additional vehicles.
Police spokesperson Lt. Howard Black says the curtailments typically lasted a week in the run-up to an auction when the lot reached capacity. But he notes that curtailments applied only to abandoned vehicles that didn’t create an immediate hazard, meaning other more urgent impoundments were allowed. When a curtailment ended, community service officers would see to it that abandoned vehicles were then lined up for tows to the lot.
Auditors found, however, that the 1,105-vehicle capacity lot held only 961 vehicles during that time, meaning it was 87 percent full, suggesting the lot could better manage its available space.
One reason for crowding appears to stem from misunderstandings over requirements to claim a vehicle. Auditors found only 16 percent — one in six — of those who tried to retrieve their cars succeeded on a first attempt.
“Each visit by an owner resulted in Impound Technicians’ time being spent and in most cases, this time did not result in the car being released,” the report says. The chief problem was owners weren’t prepared with the required documents, but, as auditors noted, “The root cause of this issue was not readily apparent.”
Reclaim your rideTo reclaim a vehicle, you’ll need proof of insurance, a driver’s license and registration that matches the license plates, which must be current and in the name of the owner.
To tow a vehicle out, you’ll need registration or title and a valid ID, and the tow truck has to be registered with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and arrive at the impound lot by 4 p.m. weekdays, according to the impound website.
Have money ready. If your vehicle languished for a month, you’d owe $600 for storage ($30 per day; no charge for weekends and holidays), a $46.75 impound fee and $75 for towing, totaling $721.75.
Some cars may not be worth that, so people don’t bother.
Which means those vehicles are bound for auction if they’re not claimed within 30 days after police attempt to reach owners via phone and registered mail.
But auditors found cars sold for scrap, comprising 62 percent of auction cars, averaged 59 days on the lot, while public-auction cars sat for an average of 106 days.
An idea to speed things up, auditors wrote: “If the intent was to scrap non-title cars, the paperwork should not need to be sufficient for the buyer to obtain a clear title.”
In other words, staff time is wasted. Auditors also noted the department pays overtime for title auctions, held with regularity throughout the year.
- lumen-digital / Shutterstock.com
- A 2017 Dodge Journey SUV sold in September for $4,800.
Unknown wheels, good dealsAuction prep requires the city to pay tow fees to private companies to move vehicles from the intake part of the lot to the auction side, which cost the city $65,000 in 2017 alone, because the city didn’t have its own towing equipment, auditors noted.
That problem also was at play in incurring tow fees to and from the lot and to shuffle cars when necessary to make more room. All together, tow charges exceeded $1 million in two years, according to records obtained by the Indy.
Those auctions, usually held twice a month, got rid of 3,882 vehicles, and brought in $828,000 in 2017 and $756,000 in 2018 through November, records show. The city also collected tow and storage fees from people retrieving their vehicles. That came to $830,600 in 2017 and $594,296 through November this year. Generally, all tow fees are recovered, unless waived by the court or due to an owner being a crime victim.
For bargain hunters, auctions can be a source of fantastic deals. One example: A 2017 Dodge Journey SUV sold in September for $4,800. Though many vehicles are severely damaged, don’t run or don’t have keys.
Administrative blunders included failure to renew or rebid the auction contract after it expired in 2017 (a new contract is now in place) and a discrepancy of $51,350 between two different revenue-reporting systems, likely due, auditors surmised, to data entry errors.
The impound process was further complicated by using a “Car Card” filled out by officers that contained 32 fields, proving a drain on impound workers’ time.
CSPD’s solutionsAfter setting and then canceling two interviews, CSPD issued written responses to our questions, saying cited problems are being addressed. The city’s IT department is working on a system to prevent revenue discrepancies. Police have redesigned Car Cards to include a customer copy. There are new brochures explaining procedures, and the department has lessened requirements for ownership documentation. By purchasing a front-end loader to move vehicles within the lot, as the city did recently, the city will avoid tow fees and up efficiency.
Other steps include online auctions starting in January, and working with the Department of Motor Vehicles to establish a minimum level of paperwork required for car titles.
As well, CSPD intends to reorganize the lot to eliminate multiple moves and to “increase evidentiary integrity.” Also, police adopted a new policy that allows short-term investigative holds that officials say will avoid long-term holds. Two CSPD employees worked part-time for six months to research hold vehicles, resulting in 180 vehicles being released this year.
But the space problem lingers. The CSPD estimates buying land and installing security measures would cost more than $1 million. Thus, Black explains, “We are pursuing other more cost-effective measures first, such as the front-end loader and online auctions for more efficient and timely vehicle movements.”
Claims to fameControversy isn’t uncommon in the impound world, according to media reports. In 2013, an audit of the Cincinnati city lot found shoddy record-keeping failed to properly track money and vehicles, and in Kansas City the next year a lot made headlines by demanding a couple whose vehicle had been stolen pay the $230 tow bill.
The Springs lot hasn’t been immune to similar issues, but at least it hasn’t impounded a vehicle with a dead body inside and failed to discover it for nearly two months, as happened earlier this year in Memphis.
Still, CSPD’s lot has drawn some attention. A car stolen in Pueblo in June 2017 was located in Colorado Springs a month later. The owner called weekly to find out when she could claim her car. She never heard back, but soon found it on the September 2017 auction list, KOAA News 5 reported at the time. She was ultimately able to claim her car before it was sold.
Seven others have in the last year, alleging grievances such as damage to vehicles and, in two cases, a vehicle being sold without the owner being notified. The city dismissed all but one claim and paid no damages as a result.
The validated claim came from a woman stuck with a needle inside a van she bought at auction. She later withdrew the claim after police explained that all vehicles are searched for hazards, valuables, personally identifying and illegal items prior to sale but that it’s impossible to ensure everything is found. That’s why all vehicles are purchased “as is, buyer beware,” the CSPD says.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to remove an inaccuracy in a specific case involving an Uber driver's vehicle. We regret the error.