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Colorado family blindsided by $4,800 bill after driver killed their son

Rachel Woolf, Special to the Denver Post

A photo of Kirk Houston is on display at the home of his parents in Brighton on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.

Early on an October morning in 2016, Kirk Houston was driving east of Brighton in a 1970 Chevrolet truck he had restored by hand when a driver high on heroin struck his car and drove away. Houston died in the crash. He was 48.

His Chevy was impounded as evidence in an investigation that took more than two years. When the case was closed, Houston family members received word that they could finally retrieve the truck from the Weld County tow lot it had been sitting in.

“So I called the tow yard to get the truck, and that’s when they informed me it would be $4,800,” said Harvey Houston, Kirk’s older brother. “I got pretty mad at the guy, because I thought he was trying to pull a fast one. I just couldn’t see us paying for it when we weren’t allowed to pick it up for all that time.”

The Chevy, Harvey estimates, isn’t worth close to $4,800. The only truly valuable thing about it is its engine, which Kirk Houston built and which is still relatively new.

But the truck and its engine have tremendous sentimental value to the family.

“That was the last thing that Kirk had built,” said his mother, Mary Houston. “The truck was the last place that Kirk was in.”

She added: “I’m angry over what happened to my son. And I’m angry that I couldn’t even get a memory back.”

Advocates say they hear semi-regularly from Coloradans who were victims of a car-related crime and then wound up saddled with bills in the hundreds or even thousands to cover towing and impound costs. New, bipartisan legislation moving through the state Capitol proposes to remove that burden from the Houston family and others.

There are recent examples from across the state.

  • In 2018 a man said he faced a $1,700 bill after his car was stolen from Denver and taken to Pueblo.
  • A couple in their 80s said in 2017 that they had to pay nearly $200 after Colorado Springs police recovered their car.
  • In 2016 a family that had been carjacked in Aurora said they were charged $152 to get their car back.

Said Sterling Harris, chief deputy director of the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance: “We sometimes don’t think about what the impact a crime like auto theft will leave on somebody. But it can leave a lot of financial impact. And when you’ve been the victim of a crime, it’s not fair for you to have that financial burden when you really did nothing wrong.”

This was the case that the Houstons tried to make. They contacted the Colorado State Patrol to see whether there was a way to erase the debt to get the Chevy back.

A victim advocate with CSP was able to knock their bill down to about $1,500, Harvey Houston said, but that still felt too high to the family. In fact, he and his mother said, they weren’t comfortable paying any amount of money to recover something that was taken from them.

CSP Trooper Josh Lewis explained why this continues to happen.

After a crash that requires investigation, he said, “we can’t leave it in the middle of the street, and the tow operator likewise deserves to be paid for the time and effort.”

The question is who should pay the tow operator.

The new state bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Aurora, and Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, proposes to free up $100,000 in state money that would be distributed by an outside nonprofit to crime victims whose cars were towed and impounded. The bill also would require more thorough data collection so Colorado can have better documentation of just how often victims have to pay to get their cars back.

“The point is to try to find some money to pay to help people, and, more importantly, get the data to understand the problem, and how many people are being victimized. Otherwise, all we have are anecdotes,” Sullivan said.

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