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Restraint among sheriffs
Unlike constables, for whom no one sets standards, Massachusetts county sheriffs have to face the voters every six years. That can work as a check on overzealous collection work.
''We do not want people saying, 'The elected sheriff took my car and then junked it,' .'' said Jeffrey R. Turco, the chief deputy to Worcester Sheriff Guy W. Glodis. After receiving inquiries from the Globe, the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association is reviewing the fees they charge hooking cars for debt collectors.
No sheriff's department has seized more autos than Worcester County's - more than 1,000 since January 2002. And for Glodis, who took office in 2005, some of those seizures could prove to be politically embarrassing.
Take the case of Marlene Cote, of Leominster, who last December filed for bankruptcy - a step that legally protects assets from seizure. Or so Cote thought, until the evening of Jan. 13, when two of Glodis's deputy sheriffs banged on her door at 8:30 p.m. and said they were seizing her 11-year-old Jeep.
By Cote's account, the deputies were undeterred when she showed them her bankruptcy filing. They even threatened to arrest her when she stood between the tow truck and her vehicle.
Cote's debt, an old $300 bill from a local dentist, barely topped $600 with accumulated interest. The fee charged by the deputies added another $600. And the towing company wanted $310. The total - for a car that could not legally be seized - was $1,530.56.
When the Globe first raised Cote's case with Deputy Turco in mid-March, he acknowledged that the deputy sheriffs should have checked with his office when they were presented with the bankruptcy documents. According to his office records, Cote's car was returned within a few days when the error was discovered.
In fact, the car was still being held, two months after it was towed away, by Direnzo Towing & Recovery, which had added another $1,200 in storage fees in the interim.
Finally, at the end of March, Cote's car was returned and all the charges were waived. But Cote paid dearly for the episode as she struggled to regain her financial footing.
During the 10 weeks she had to get by without her Jeep, Cote said, she spent between $600 and $800 to commute by taxi to her $8-an-hour job as a cashier at a Kohl's department store in Leominster. During that period, she also had to abandon a second job, caring for mental health patients in group homes in Athol and Gardner.
It felt to her, as to many who lose their cars to unpaid debts, like a prison term for a traffic offense. And such penalties are far from rare: A review of Worcester sheriff's
office records released by Turco showed numerous instances of debt collectors engaging deputy sheriffs to seize cars from people with small unpaid debts. Often, the fees associated with seizure doubled or even tripled the amount of the original debt.
Uxbridge collection lawyer Richard R. Hubbard is the source of many of those cases. He has had hundreds of cars hauled away, mostly by the Worcester County Sheriff's Department, from families whose unpaid - or disputed - debts to dentists, doctors, and local heating oil companies were just a few hundred dollars.
For its part, the Worcester Sheriff's Department has made one change in the wake of Globe inquiries: They had been charging $600 for all car seizures, whether the car is towed or the debtor pays the amount owed on the spot. Now, those who pay their debt to avoid a tow are charged $300.
In some other jurisdictions, sheriffs and constables have gone even further. In fact, most decline to seize autos. And the vast majority of debt collectors likewise frown on the practice.
In Suffolk and Barnstable counties, for example, the sheriff's departments rarely seize automobiles. And in the few instances when Barnstable deputies seize a car, they charge just $40 an hour for a deputy's time, according to Barnstable Chief Deputy Sheriff Brad Parker. When asked about constables who charge between $600 and $900 to seize a car, Parker said, ''That's gouging.'' As for his peers in other sheriff departments, who charge up to $600, Parker chose his words carefully: ''That sounds high.''
Parker said his office was approached two years ago by Norfolk Financial Corp. and Commonwealth Receivables Inc., two collection agencies that have seized thousands of cars, and asked to do their seizure work on Cape Cod, but he refused.
Too often, Parker said, such cases ''are against a single mother with kids and a beat-up old car, and no other transportation.''