In Friday's column we discussed the plight of John and Susan Forrister of Woodbridge.
You will recall that John had driven to National Airport to pick up a friend of Susan's. As the two returned to John's car in a parking lot at National, they became the fourth in a series of holdups in that parking area that night.
The woman's purse was taken. John's wallet and automobile were taken.
A week later, the car was seen in a legal parking space by a friend who called the police. The police didn't notify John. Instead, they towed the car away and contacted the FBI.
THE FBI removed the car's rear view and side mirrors, also its cigarette lighter and radio knobs. The Fbi also took a dozen articles of private property from the car "for examination."
The Forristers were told they would have their property back "in a day or two." But alas, the FBI was busy with other things, and "a day or two" stretched into more than a week.
When the Forristers pleaded for the return of their car, they were told that if they paid the towing and storage fees that had been levied against the vehicle, they could take it "as is." This meant they would have to drive it away without its rear view mirror in place, which would be illegal.
Meanwhile, there was no indication of when the FBI would be finished with its examination of that rear view mirror. The Metropolitan Police Department routinely "dusts" a car for finger prints in a matter of minutes, but the FBI's examination had become a lengthy project, and the Forrister auto remained in a City of Alexandria lot running up storage charges.
This was the way things stood when I wrote Friday's column. On Saturday, I called John Forrister to find out whether he had managed to get his car back.
"I have it," he replied. "About three hours after the Washington Post hit the street on Friday morning, an FBI man came by with the two mirrors, the cigarette lighter and the radio knobs, so I was able to go get my car. They still have about a dozen pieces of personal property, but at least I have the car back. And it cost me only $40 to have them deprive me of it for all that time. Wasn't that nice of them?"
John, I can well understand the note of sarcasm in your voice as you asked that question.
When public officials take away a man's automobile because they want to examine it for clues, it is outrageous of them to charge him storage on the car while they're taking their own sweet time about conducting the examination. c
It's bad enought to be robbed. It's worse to be inconvenienced in the aftermath of the robbery. But the only word for being asked to pay for the privilege of being robbed and inconvenienced is: outrageous!
Susan Forrister is of two minds about trying to fight City Hall. She shares my sense of outrage, "Especially," as she put it, "because my grocery budget for the four of us is $40 a week -- so there's something symbolic about being asked to buy back our own car for $40."
"Good heavens!" I said, "How do you feed four people on $40 a week at today's prices? You ought to write a book explaining how you do it. You'd sell a million copies."
She laughed and said, "Don't concern yourself that we four will have to stop eating for a week to pay for the storage fee. In fact, if you can get them to refund the $40, you can just forward it to Children's Hospital. The only reason we've even considered protesting is that this same policy is being applied to every crime victim -- and I'm sure that, for some, the economic consequences of being robbed are quite serious. On the other hand, John and I are quiet people who don't like to make waves. At this point we're not sure what we ought to do."
Susan, if it had been my car, I'd be just as perplexed as you are. On principle, I'd be willing to pay a lawyer a fee of many times $40 to demand the release of my car without payment of towing or storage fees. This would mark me as a rotten businessman, but the satisfaction of striking a blow for right and justice would certainly make the expenditure worthwhile.
On the other hand, even one who is reluctant to make trouble on his own behalf finds it much easier to serve as a disinterested outsider fighting for somebody else's rights. In a case of this kind, for example, where an innocent individual has been victimized and public policy condones victimizing others also, I don't hesitate to rattle a public official's cage and demand redress of grievances.
But I don't think it would be proper for me to do that on my behalf.
So if it were my car, I think I'd hand over my check with the comment, "Please don't try to get me a refund on this. It's worth $40 to me not to have to change my opinion of oficials who condone the victimization of innocent people."