Complaints drive GFPD’s abandoned vehicle investigation process

Complaints about abandoned vehicles are fairly common and the Great Falls Police Department is regularly handling those complaints.

GFPD’s response to abandoned vehicles is complaint driven and the process is dictated by state and local regulations.

“We don’t actively seek out abandoned vehicles,” said Lt. Doug Mahlum of GFPD’s Support Services Bureau. “There are laws that we have to follow before we seize private property.”

In 2018, there were 1,094 abandoned vehicle complaints in the city; of those 1,047 were resolved through compliance and 47 were towed, Mahlum said.

Some of those were duplicate complaints against the same vehicles.

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There may be more abandoned vehicles citywide, he said, but without complaints, GFPD can’t initiate action.

GFPD volunteers do the heavy lifting when it comes to investigating and tracking abandoned vehicles.

Once a complaint is made, a report is generated and the process starts.

Adrienne Ehrke, GFPD’s volunteer coordinator, said residents can come to the station to make the report but that delays the process by about a week. The speedier method is to call the non-emergency number, 406-727-7688 ext. 5, to make a report.

GFPD volunteers take that report and investigate the complaint.

Ehrke said that residents should provide as much information as possible when making a complaint, such as color, make, model, license plate if possible and any other details to help GFPD locate the vehicle and begin investigating.

“It makes a big difference,” Ehrke said.

Typically, complaints come in after a vehicle has been sitting for awhile and neighbors are finally fed up, Mahlum and Ehrke said.

Ehrke said residents should know that calling about the status of a complaint every day doesn’t speed the process, which is dictated by state law and city ordinances.

Once a complaint is made, volunteers locate the vehicle and determine at the scene what, if any, action needs to be taken.

If the vehicle appears to be otherwise legal and operable, volunteers can place an orange sticker on the vehicle as a gentle reminder of the city and state rules that prohibit parking on city streets for more than 72 hours.

Montana Code Annotated 61-8-356 states: “no vehicle shall be parked or left standing upon the right of way of any pubic highway for a period longer than 48 hours, or upon a city street or any state, county or city property for a period longer than five days.”

That rule also applies to recreational vehicles and boats.

It is not illegal to park RVs on city streets but they must be moved every 72 hours.

GFPD does get complaints about RVs and boats, but those typically come into compliance by moving, Ehrke said.

If a vehicle isn’t moved after receiving an orange sticker, volunteers can come back and place a green sticker notifying the owner that the vehicle has been classified as junk or abandoned. The registered owner can receive a $20 citation.

At that point, a letter is sent to the registered owner and if the issue isn’t addressed within 10 days of the date the letter is mailed, GFPD can tow the vehicle.

Volunteers chalk the tires when placing a sticker so they can monitor if a vehicle has moved and document when they’ve investigated the complaint to track the case.

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The recent federal appeals court decision declaring chalking tires for metered parking enforcement doesn’t apply to chalking for abandoned or junk vehicles, they said, since a complaint was made, creating reasonable suspicion to investigate, Mahlum said.

If a vehicle parked on a city street is missing parts; has become or has the potential to become a breeding ground for rodents, snakes, mosquitoes or other nuisance creatures; has heavy growth of weeds or other noxious vegetation; has become a collection point for stagnant water; has become a source of danger to children; or other violations, the vehicle can be cited after being parked in the same spot for five days or more as junk or abandoned.

Ehrke said it’s not that often that they go from an orange sticker to green. Most people come into compliance after receiving an orange sticker, she said.

Typically, there are other offenses and a vehicle owner has to fix all of the violations to come into compliance.

Ehrke said the weather in February and March made it to dangerous for volunteers to investigate abandoned vehicles and they got behind on complaints.

Ehrke said they’re now caught up on complaints, but are typically handling 50-60 complaints at any given time that are in various stages of the process.

The city contracts with Ox and Son Auto Auction of Great Falls for towing.

Mahlum said a rumor has been floating around that there weren’t enough tow trucks to handle abandoned vehicles. He said that has never been the case and the city contract ensures any necessary towing will occur.

Mahlum and Ehrke also said locals should be aware that they can’t just tow cars with the green stickers.

Vehicles that are towed are impounded. Owners can pick them up and some residents have complained that after a vehicle was towed it reappears in the same spot.

Mahlum said that does happen, and residents can make a complaint to start the process over again.

Mahlum said few vehicles are recovered by owners.

“If we’re towing, it’s usually truly abandoned,” he said.

If the vehicle isn’t claimed within 30 days, it can be junked and sold.

One problem is that there is no mechanism is state law for owners to relinquish vehicle so the registered owner gets the citation.

Ehrke recommended that if residents sell a vehicle that they keep their license plates and don’t give up the title until it’s transferred. She also recommended that anyone selling a vehicle keep copies of the notarized title and bill of sale with both signatures, dates, amount, vehicle details for at least 10 years.

Ehrke said city prosecutors will forgive citations if the registered owner can prove that they relinquished the vehicle.

Mahlum and Ehrke said the department encourages residents to be courteous of their neighbors but to remember that residents don’t own the parking spaces in front of their property if it’s on a city street.

Having more volunteers could help the department cover more ground and also gives residents an opportunity to have a direct role in addressing community problems.

Ehrke said they have about 30 volunteers now and she’d like to get to 45-50.

Anyone interested in volunteering can find more information and the application form on the city website.

Volunteers are asked to work four hours per week during the year. The seasonal volunteer program is targeted in the downtown area and runs April through October.

They walk downtown in pairs with shirts identifying them as GFPD volunteers with radios to provide a presence. Volunteers get some basic orientation and training, and have the option to do bike patrol and be trained on the UTV.

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Volunteers can’t take action if there’s an incident, Mahlum said, but are an extra set of eyes and ears who can call issues into dispatch.

“We don’t want them to put themselves in a situation that’s dangerous,” Mahlum said.

Ehrke said they’re encouraged to walk around downtown, engage with business owners, employees, visitors

“Be present and build relationships with people that are down there,” Ehrke said.