Ongoing Joint investigation by CBS4 and El Nuevo HeraldBy Lauren Pastrana

SWEETWATER (CBSMiami/El Nuevo Herald) – Still under the microscope of the FBI, the City of Sweetwater now finds itself the target of a federal lawsuit alleging the city towed cars illegally.

The complaint filed just last week outlines a chain of events that seems to have been a pattern in the city.

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A person is arrested, their car is towed, and then they never see those cars again.

Click here to view the complaint filed on Sweetwater

CBS4 and our partners at El Nuevo Herald have teamed up for a joint investigation into the questionable connection between the city and Southland The Towing Company.

Click here to read El Nuevo Herald’s article 

“They told me I had to pay $500 and that if I didn’t cooperate with police or snitch, I would lose the car. And that’s exactly what happened,” Manuel Rangel explained.

Rangel was arrested in September 2011 in connection to a warehouse bust where cops found piles of counterfeit and stolen merchandise.

A woman who was arrested the same night told a similar story.

“The official in charge told me if you don’t cooperate, they’re going to put a hold on your car and you’ll never be able to get it back,” she said.

A Sweetwater City ordinance required her to pay $500 to the city to get it back.

“When I called the towing company, they told me they’d already sold it. That I didn’t have any rights,” she said.

A month and a half after her arrest, vehicle registration records, reviewed by CBS 4 and El Nuevo Herald, show the title to her Ford Excursion was transferred to Southland, the towing company that used to impound cars under a no-bid verbal agreement with Sweetwater’s former police chief.

A month later, in December 2011, records show the City of Sweetwater took ownership of the SUV.

Click here to read CBS4’s original investigation “Questionable Connection Between Towing Co. & Suspended Mayor”

In the two years since, it’s exchanged hands a few more times.

We found it parked outside this Southwest Miami-Dade home.

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We also located Victor Mesa’s White Dodge Ram.

It was parked at a house near Sweetwater.

Mesa said a Sweetwater officer had his truck towed from outside his home two years ago.

“He said, ‘Okay, is this your truck?’ I said, ‘Yeah, this is my truck.’ He said, ‘Give me the keys I’m going to take it.’ I said, ‘Why are you going to take my truck?’ He said, ‘Because I like it’.”

Mesa was busted for stealing cell phones, a crime he admits to and served time in jail for.

He was eventually deported to Colombia.

He spoke to us via Skype.

As for his truck, the title was transferred to Southland six weeks after his arrest, and then to the city of Sweetwater two weeks later.

Several sources have told CBS4 and El Nuevo Herald federal authorities are investigating whether Sweetwater cops and other city officials took kickbacks from Southland, the towing company with ties to Sweetwater’s suspended mayor Manny Marono.

Click here to read CBS4’s “Questionable Connection: Suspended Mayor Helped Towing Co. Get Business” 

Rangel said he believes what’s happening is not right.

“They can do anything they want basically,” Rangel said. They steal and nobody can do anything about it.”

The plaintiff in the lawsuit filed last week, Abraham Herbas, claims the Sweetwater’s towing ordinance violated his constitutional rights.

“(Sweetwater) made an unreasonable detention and seizure of (his) vehicle and thereafter sold it at auction circumventing Florida law governing forfeiture, and violating his rights under the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments,” the suit states.

Since CBS 4 and El Nuevo began asking questions about the city’s towing policies, things have changed.

The towing fee for those arrested on a misdemeanor charge has been dropped to $250, and the new deputy police chief issued a policy directive that’s cut down drastically on towing.

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Related: Click here to read CBS4’s “Sweetwater Names New Interim Police Chief”

Lauren Pastrana