I’m a Crime Victim — but Not According to Philadelphia’s Finest

On Sunday, July 31st, I parked my black Hyundai Elantra, which I recently purchased on a subprime auto loan because, as a Millenial, few other options are open to me, on a side street with unregulated parking in the city of Philadelphia, near Temple University. I had been helping a friend move, and was extremely tired, stressed, and moreover, did not need to use the car for the next several days, as I am an educator who does not work during the month of August. A few days prior, I had lost one of my front door keys — I did not realize, however, that I had also lost a secondary key to my vehicle because I had always treated the two keys I was given from the dealership as interchangeable and it simply didn’t occur to me that it was missing.

On Tuesday, August 2nd, I discovered that the car was no longer parked in the spot on the street where I had left it. My initial assumption was that I had accidentally blocked a driveway, or in some way violated another parking regulation of the city. Because of this, my first impulse was to contact the Philadelphia Parking Authority, who told me that they had no Hyundai Elantras in impound, and furthermore, advised me that the vehicle might have been moved by a construction company as a “courtesy tow” — which, according to them (and later the police) allows these companies to move vehicles “within five block radius,” even if those vehicles are parked legally. To confirm this, I called the police and asked to report the vehicle stolen, but they reiterated that there had been construction in the area and that it was my responsibility to check if the car had been “courtesy towed.” At this point it was late at night; as a woman, who suspected she might already be victim of a crime, and who had received intimidating comments from neighbors, I didn’t feel safe walking a five block radius in the evening, and so I waited until the next day, Wednesday, August 3rd, to hire an Uber driver to drive me around the neighborhood within a five block radius (at my own expense, during a month when I was not receiving a paycheck. Finding no sign of my vehicle after a comprehensive search, I went to the local police precinct, Precinct 22, to report my vehicle stolen for a second time. They refused to take a report, again, despite my statement of having checked all the blocks. I gave them my license plate number and they said — accurately, as I would later discover- that they had not pulled over or stopped a vehicle with those plates. They did give me a couple of numbers related to the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA), including the numbers of their lots. I called these lots, and had no luck when I gave them my license plate number- but when I gave my VIN number, they informed me the vehicle had been impounded as part of Philadelphia’s Livestop program, which stops vehicles for improper registration. They asked me if I was the individual stopped, and I told them that I was not.

I proceeded to the impound lot, where I was informed that I could not retrieve the vehicle without paying impound fees, and furthermore, that I would need to provide proof of registration. They allowed me to see the car and to check inside for the registration — it wasn’t there. The thief had disposed of it, and the plates on the vehicle were not mine and did not match the car. The window of the car had been shattered in order to enter it, although the police had recovered and confiscated the vehicle’s key. Because I didn’t have a copy of the registration, I couldn’t recover the vehicle — which was understandable, and to which I had no objection. However, I was concerned, as impound fees would build every day I left the car in impound, and I was already told that despite the vehicle having been stolen, I was required to pay more than $200 in towing costs simply for having it impounded. In any case, however, it was clear that I was a victim of a crime — or so I thought. I called 911 and reported the vehicle stolen, and an officer came to take a report. Unfortunately, I did not obtain this officer’s badge number at the time, although I have now obtained from city hall a copy of the report.

The officer informed me of the following: my car was not stolen, but rather “recovered before being stolen.” “It happens all of the time,” he said.

In addition, he told me, because the vehicle was “recovered before being stolen” (despite having been impounded in the possession of an individual I do not know, who had by the police and the impound lot’s admission placed false plates on the vehicle and who was an unlicensed driver), I would be responsible for all impound fees, plus a $75 “administrative fee” at traffic court where I would pay for “my” offense.

Because my vehicle has a New Jersey registration (I moved to Philadelphia recently and still travel to and work in Jersey, sometimes not returning to the city), I had to comply with New Jersey’s very strict insurance laws to get a duplicate registration. Specifically, I had to provide proof of liability insurance on my insurance company’s letterhead — meaning an app or a printout I made at home would not be sufficient. Because of this, I had to contact my insurer and request new insurance documents by mail, which took several days to recover. Lacking a car, I was reliant on friends for transportation — I had little money to hire taxis or Uber. During this time, I contacted the Mayor of Philadelphia on Twitter about the requirement that I pay impound fees — despite the fact that my car was forcibly entered and stolen.

The Mayor’s office responded to me and put me in touch with the director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, who assured me -and kept her word — that I wouldn’t have to pay impound fees, although I was still on the hook for the $75 administrative fee because, again, the car was “not stolen.” I accepted this the best I could, but it took me two weeks to find transportation to a New Jersey DMV to gain a replacement registration and new license plates. When I called the head of the PPA again, as she had requested, to notify her I planned to recover the car, she asked me if I had the police report of the car being stolen. I explained to her that no such report had been filed — I’d been given a “DC number” saying that I reported the car stolen, but it was “recovered before being stolen” and so the police had not pursued charges against the criminal or marked the vehicle as being stolen. (They had impounded the vehicle on August 3rd, the same day that I made the report of it being stolen. I had, again, not been allowed to even attempt a report when I realized the car was missing the previous day, despite calling police.)

I went to the precinct where the impound lot was located, Precinct 15, from where the officer had come to take the report, and asked for a copy of the report. I was told that I would need to get that from City Hall and that it could take some time — even though the PPA planned to auction my car in just a few weeks!

I was, however, informed that the handling by my home precinct of the incident was highly irregular — that the police had all of the information about the thief in the Livestop report, and that he should have been locked up and held responsible for damages, as well as for the theft of nearly my entire wardrobe (probably close to $1000 in value), a video game console, a laptop, my passport, signed music memorabilia, and the vehicle’s plates.

The officer told me, however, that I needed to go to my home precinct and again try to make a report. When I spoke to officers there, whose badge numbers I recovered and saved, and one of whom was a supervisor, I was called a man by one of them (my driver’s license, which I provided, shows that I am female) and he told me “shame on you” for not possessing a copy of the registration — despite the fact that said registration was stolen from the vehicle. He repeatedly said that “I claimed” not to know the individual who was driving the car when it was impounded, obviously implying I might be lying, and said that he had no record of me trying to report the car stolen the day before it was impounded. He told me that I could file a civil suit against the thief, “or contact internal affairs.”

I was able to recover the vehicle, and thanks to the gracious help of the Parking Authority, the fees were waived for the impound. I still had to pay $75 for someone else’s infraction to traffic court, and I spent a total of $90.17 on Uber fares traveling between police precincts, DMVs, traffic courts, and the impound lot. Again, about $1500 of my personal property was stolen from the vehicle, and the window of the vehicle was shattered. The police flat-out refused to take a report of a vehicle theft, or of the theft of the items in the vehicle, simply stating again that “this happens all of the time” and that they had no interest in collecting evidence from the vehicle (such as the false plates, or the Phillies baseball cap and cigarillos the thief left in the vehicle.) When I was at the 22nd precinct today, I was also told that the police “could not” issue a stolen report for a vehicle taken almost three weeks ago.

I looked up the statute of limitations for damage to property in Pennsylvania on a legal site, although a cursory search couldn’t find the one for auto theft. It is two years. The police officer outright lied to me.

I admit that part of my reason for posting this is because as a result of being without a car for three weeks, the damages, and the stolen property, I’m in dire financial straits and risking default on credit cards. I have set up a YouCaring account asking for donations — initially, I had asked for only a small amount from friends who were inclined to give because of my seasonal employment situation, but the situation grew worse, as this article demonstrates. However, I also think that the city of Philadelphia needs to deal with what appears to be a rampant lack of concern for the well being of law abiding citizens by its police department. Even if some administrative rule prevented the car from being “technically stolen,” the window was shattered and thousands of dollars of property were taken. The vehicle was recovered with fake plates. The police have the name and address of the man who was in possession of the car, and I am willing to affirm or swear under oath that I do not know this man and did not give him permission to take the car (as if the shattered window isn’t evidence enough).

The police have a heavy presence in my (predominantly minority) neighborhood. I regularly hear police sirens. Yet the theft of a citizen’s automobile has been treated as not a crime, and I was told — direct quote — “shame on you”- for not having a copy of the registration. Which was stolen.

The city of Philadelphia should be ashamed. While I was waiting to file my report, I sat next to a woman who told me I had “no idea” how uncaring the police were — she was there to report a crime herself, and was also treated rudely. “That’s America for you,” she told me. Is it?