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[whitespace] Highway Robbery

Sunnyvale-After admitting that the city had towed a private citizens' car, kept it for more than 30 days, and then sold it for profit, city officials here admitted last week that their failure to comply with a 1996 change in the vehicle code could cost the city $67,000.

City Council members approved terms of a settlement at an Aug. 18 meeting, ending a year-long class-action lawsuit brought by 82 car owners who had their vehicles towed and impounded by city-contracted towing companies.

The city's problems began when a change in the vehicle code ordered the rewriting of notices sent out to folks whose cars were picked up and impounded. The new law called for precise language to clearly state car owners could retrieve their cars within 30 days. Previously, nebulous language lead car owners to believe they could not pick up their cars within 30 days. By then, some of those cars were history.

Sunnyvale Fire Marshall Byron Pipkin, who oversees the city's towing procedures, said the change in the books was one that "fell through the cracks."

"Inevitably," Pipkin admitted, "we kept cars longer than was allowed."

A report by city attorney Valerie Armento estimates 40 people from the original class-action group of 82 could be eligible to claim damages.

Wilson said Sunnyvale is not the only city to overlook the change in the code. Her law firm is planning class action suits against four other cities in the Bay Area, she said.

"Hopefully," Wilson said, "other cities will take it upon themselves to review their procedures."
Justin Berton

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Web extra to the September 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro.

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