I-TEAM INVESTIGATION: She almost lost her car in an auction, but it was her own research that trumped a judge and towing company.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019
News 12 at 6 o'clock

This Mercury Sable belonging to Helen Harding could have been up for auction if it weren't for Harding's research into towing companies. (Source: WRDW)

EDGEFIELD & AIKEN COUNTIES (WRDW/WAGT) -- . An I-Team investigation, thanks to a Call to Action call, into a broken-down car could expose another breakdown. It has to do with the law towing companies are supposed to follow when they haul off a vehicle. It appears there's not a lot of oversight when that happens.

Towing companies make some money from a tow, but the big bucks can come from storage fees. That's likely why South Carolina law says anytime a towing company tows a vehicle without the owner's knowledge, they have to report it to law enforcement. It seems that was news, though, to a local towing company and judge.

It's not running at the moment, but for now, Helen Harding is just happy she can sit in her 2005 Mercury Sable.

"It's my property, and I own it outright. I don't owe anybody for it," she said.

That's why she thought she owed it to herself to get it back. Jason Ulrich saif he was pulling her car to the shop when his truck broke down too. They pushed the car into a parking lot, but when they came back to get it several days later, it was gone.

"I did not even know where it was. I called North Augusta city police. I called Aiken County Sheriff's. They could not tell me. There was no towing report whatsoever done," Harding told the Edgefield County Chief Magistrate Judge.

Harding gave our I-Team the audio recording of her conversation with the judge. She told us she recorded it out of fear she would lose her car, and she almost did.

We'll get to that in a minute, but first, let's rewind back to Nov. 13, 2018. That's the day Carolina Towing towed her car. She says she had no clue where it was and didn't find it until sometime around Christmas.

The storage fees were already starting to pile up. Then, there's the question of where the car was being stored. Her car was left in Aiken County, but she got a notice from Edgefield County that let her know her car was set to be auctioned off February 4, 2019. To contest the sale, it read in all caps, "YOU MUST APPEAR AT THIS HEARING."

However, she could also settle up her bill with Carolina Towing. It had grown by the day. By Feb. 4, her car had been there for 83 days. If you look at the fee schedule Harding was provided, it lists a $33 storage per day. At 83 days, that's $2,739. Add in towing and administrative fees, and she was looking at almost $3,000. Her car probably isn't even worth that much.

Harding said she felt like her car was being held hostage.

"And I didn't understand why. 'Cause it's an older car, but it's my car. And I just felt like, you know, I wanted to fight for my car," Harding said.

She got a hearing and showed up to court, armed with research she did on her phone.

Judge: "Okay, which subsection?"
Helen Harding: "I, I wrote in parenthesis B."
Judge: "B. A towing company which tows and stores a person's vehicle without the person's knowledge must immediately notify the police department of the municipality where the vehicle was parked. Or the Sheriff of the County."
Judge: "Did you notify the county that you had towed the vehicle at the request of the property owner?
Carolina Towing: No.
Judge: "Okay, so what's that's gonna do is - that, that hurts, uh, your argument for storage, um, because obviously, if, if she's trying to call law enforcement to find out where her vehicle is..."
Helen: "And I did."
judge: "towed, and they can't tell her, then she can't act on it in a timely manner."

The President of Carolina Towing told our I-Team by phone one of his dispatchers "dropped the ball" because they normally do contact law enforcement. He called this a "one time fluke." In court though, it appeared neither he nor the judge were familiar with that part of the law.

Judge: "The issue with notification to law enforcement, is, is problematic for y'all as far as your towing policy..."
Carolina Towing: "And I learned something today."

We checked, and over the last several years, Carolina Towing is on record for more than 100 public vehicle auctions in Edgefield County.

We found records of a few other towing companies, but none had near as many auctions as Carolina Towing. Just last week, Carolina Towing was listed on 8 of the 10 public auction notices we found posted on the bulletin board in Edgefield County Magistrate Court.

"If you're someone like me that doesn't have a lot of clout or a lot of financial means, I think some people feel like they're just -- they're going to lose anyway," Harding said.

If you look at the number of cases Carolina Towing has settled in the last several years, it's so very few. In our list of more than 100 auctions, Carolina Towing has only settled six times with five cases pending.

Harding believes she would have lost her car without her own research.

In the end, Harding paid a reduced rate of $125 for the tow even though, technically, the statute says she's not liable for it. Meanwhile, questions remain why Harding never contacted the business where she left her car to ask if it had been towed. Both the Edgefield County Chief Magistrate Judge and Carolina Towing brought this up in the hearing.

The statute Harding brought up trumped that. The lesson here is to always do your homework.