A lot of costs

A new state law intending to punish criminals who run from police may also place an extra burden on counties.

Lawmakers approved N.C. House Bill 427 this summer. The “Run and You’re Done” law, which goes into effect Dec. 1, forces police to seize any vehicle involved in a felonious speeding-to-elude-arrest incident.

According to the law, those vehicles are then handed over to sheriffs — placing more cars, paperwork and up-front costs on county resources that are already slim.

“We may have to look at expanding the impound lot because we try to clear it out as much as we can, but when you have so many vehicles there waiting to be seized, it fills up,” said Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid.

The county’s impound lot is currently at 80 percent capacity, a number Reid said stays fairly consistent. While he doesn’t expect an extra influx of cars when the law goes into effect, he said it’s a guessing game.

The county deals with about 10 to 15 speeding-to-elude-arrest incidents each year, Reid said. That estimate doesn’t include incidents municipal departments deal with, though, which will also send seized cars to the sheriff.

One of the most recent incidents involving a suspect fleeing police occurred Oct. 3 in Claremont.

At about 3:30 a.m., an officer chased a red Toyota truck after it sped away from the Rock Tenn parking lot on U.S. 70. The chase ended in Conover, when the driver flipped the truck in front of a business at 441 North Macklin Creek Road.

Under the new law, the sheriff will be responsible for seizing and storing such vehicles, even though a Claremont officer was involved in the chase.

“It is unusual that even though the city might be charging, the sheriff is still keeping the vehicle,” said Debra Bechtel, the county’s attorney.

“There are still some questions that are not really clear. It’s going to require the clerk, the police agencies, the district attorney’s office and sheriff’s office to work through these things.”

The suspect charged with fleeing police is eventually responsible for towing and storage costs through restitution fees or a court sale of their vehicle. The law, however, makes it unclear whether the municipal police department or sheriff’s office will pay for the costs up front.

It’s also unclear how long the sheriff will have to keep impounded vehicles, something that always varies, Reid said. He said it’s not unusual to keep a car for as long as two or three years.

“They stay there for as long as the pending matter is dealt with,” Reid said. “We would hope it would stay there no longer than that, but there are times that insurance companies take a long time to make a settlement.”

On Thursday, the impound lot looked nearly full. Barbed-wire fencing stored not only cars, but boats, mopeds and large trucks as well. While some of the cars looked newly impounded, others did not and were covered in rust and weeds.

For more information or to view a copy of session law 2011-271, visit ncga.state.nc.us.