The city of Anchorage paid nearly $20,000 to a man who complained that police had improperly towed and crushed his 1970s-era bus in 2014, according to a new ombudsman report.
It was a case that demonstrated vague city laws around "junk" or abandoned vehicles, officials said — a chronic neighborhood nuisance but also, sometimes, a symptom of a life in flux. While abandoned vehicles are illegal, the law doesn't spell out exactly how far a car owner has to move a vehicle to keep it safe from towing or what it means for a vehicle to be left "unattended."
In this case, the man once lived in the big, white, school-bus style vehicle that popped up in a Midtown alley, said ombudsman Darrel Hess. He had found an apartment but did not have a place to park the bus, Hess said. After warnings from police, the man moved the bus here and there, but police decided he wasn't keeping up with the "spirit" of the law and impounded and crushed the bus.
But Hess said the man couldn't have known how far to move it to avoid impoundment. He said he was concerned the law could create more hardship for people who can't pay fees, or who even may be living out of a car.
The police chief, Justin Doll, agreed in an interview that the law was out-of-date. He's asked city attorneys to work on making it clearer.
He added that it's possible at the moment for people to use loopholes to get around the goal of the law.
"Which is not to leave vehicles forever on city streets and neighborhoods," Doll said.
The man first contacted the city ombudsman to complain he was falsely arrested in late 2014, and police had unlawfully impounded his truck and his bus. The truck was sold at auction while the bus was crushed, according to the report from deputy ombudsman Betsy Eisses. City risk managers denied his compensation claim.
Neighbors had complained about the man's 1976 International bus, which was left in an alley on West 34th Avenue in Midtown, Eisses wrote in her report. The windows were rolled down and snow had gotten inside, Hess said.
In Anchorage, cars can't be left on city streets for more than 24 hours on weekdays. Police use a mix of chalk, photos and rocks left on wheels to gauge whether a car has been moved.
Police first tagged the vehicle Nov. 4, 2014. The tag contained a warning that the bus could be towed if it wasn't moved within 24 hours.
Two days later, police returned to the bus and found the red tag had been removed and the bus moved about 20 feet, according to the report. Police then put chalk on the tires. On Nov. 18, the bus had moved a few feet. An office put a rock on the tire.
On Nov. 21, police noted the location of the bus but didn't say if the rock was still in place.
On Dec. 2, nearly a month after police first tagged the bus, police seized it as an abandoned vehicle. A write-up of the incident noted clear ground under the bus and a snow berm around it, according to Eisses' report. The next day, a tow truck showed up to ferry the bus away.
The bus's owner arrived in a truck as police officers were impounding the bus, Eisses wrote. Police checked the man's driver's license, found it was suspended, and arrested him for driving his truck with a suspended license.
Those charges were dismissed a year later. At that point, the bus owner had to pay fees and get his truck out of impound, Eisses wrote in her report. He didn't do it, the report said. His truck was sold at auction Feb. 14, 2015.
His bus, meanwhile, was crushed into scrap metal, according to Eisses' report.
Under city law, a vehicle is abandoned if it is "left unattended" for more than 72 hours. But in this case, Eisses wrote, the law didn't define what "unattended" meant, and police couldn't prove with certainty that the bus had been abandoned.
The deputy ombudsman interviewed Alan Ryberg, the police officer involved, and his then-supervisor, Sgt. Roy LeBlanc.
Ryberg and LeBlanc acknowledged someone had paid attention to the bus in between the first tagging and the towing. But they contended the bus owner wasn't following the "spirit" of the law by only moving it a few feet.
City law also doesn't say how far a vehicle has to be moved to keep it from being abandoned. LeBlanc and Ryberg told the ombudsman they didn't actually know how far the bus had to be moved, according to Eisses' report.
The city's chief code enforcement officer, Jack Frost, told Eisses a vehicle is considered not abandoned if a tire mark moves even a few inches and the tag is removed.
In early 2016, Eisses met with Doll, who was a captain at the time, and other APD officials to talk about issues with the law. She ultimately decided there was not enough evidence for police to prove the bus was abandoned. She also said it was a problem that LeBlanc and Ryberg were interpreting the "spirit" of the law.
"Relying on 300 + sworn officers and community service officers to interpret the 'spirit' of the code can result in wide disparities in the enforcement of the code," Eisses wrote.
In an interview this week, Doll acknowledged that a strict reading of city law would lead to the vehicle being handled improperly. But he said it showed that city towing laws needed more clarity.
When police deal with parking problems, it's less about strict parking enforcement and more about turning over parking spots and dealing with neighborhood nuisances, Doll said.
"That's the way our folks look at issues when they're out in the field," Doll said. "They're trying to solve problems in neighborhoods."
Hess, the chief ombudsman, said in an interview he feared the vagueness of the city's laws could disproportionately affect lower-income neighborhoods like Fairview or Mountain View. There are more older vehicles that could be towed as junk or abandoned, Hess said.
Eisses' report also suggested it wasn't fair that a car can be destroyed because the owner did not have enough money to retrieve it.
After Eisses finished the report, city risk managers agreed to pay the man $19,204 to compensate him for the crushed bus. The amount, more than double the actual replacement value of the bus, factored in shipping costs, Hess said.
As for the man's complaint that he was falsely arrested, Eisses decided that police did have probable cause to make the arrest, since the man did not have a valid license.
After that, the man called the ombudsman's office and unleashed a profanity-laced tirade, Hess said. He said his office is now communicating with the man only in writing.
"It just shows, it doesn't really matter who it is and how they act," Hess said. "You try to get the best outcome for them, and what is right."