On 13 January 2021, a swarm of police officers with guns drawn suddenly surrounded Saleema Lovelace in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, and asked the 45-year old local community activist to exit the Nissan Sentra she was driving.
Lovelace, a member of Philadelphia’s 39th police district advisory council, an organization that seeks to liaise between police officers and local residents, was asked by police to roll down her windows and exit her car before she was placed in handcuffs and put in a police patrol car.
Her elderly father who was also in the car was also detained by the police, as shown in body-cam footage obtained by Atlanta Black Star.
As Lovelace began hyperventilating in the patrol car, a police officer proceeded to tell her that they were responding to an auto theft call. The Nissan Sentra that Lovelace had been driving for half a year after getting into a car accident had been reported stolen by Hertz, the car rental company.
But that was not true.
Lovelace is one of nearly 400 people who have filed claims against Hertz in recent years over its false accusations against its customers of auto theft. The accusations have resulted in numerous false arrests at gunpoint – including that of a 13-year-old girl and in some cases, jail time for as long as seven months, according to one customer.
The company recently announced that it will pay $168m to settle 364 claims that were brought against it. According to Hertz, the settlement will bring resolution to “more than 95% of it pending theft reporting claims.”
“My intention is to lead a company that puts the customer first. In resolving these claims, we are holding ourselves to that objective,” the Hertz CEO, Stephen Scherr, said in a statement.
“While we will not always be perfect, the professionals at Hertz will continue to work every day to provide best-in-class service to the tens of millions of people we serve each year. Moving forward, it is our intention to reshape the future of our company through electrification, shared mobility and a great digital-first customer experience,” he added.
Numerous lawsuits filed against Hertz in recent years accuse the company of knowingly and falsely reporting its customers to authorities. They accuse Hertz of not investigating alleged thefts before filing theft reports, as well as reporting cars stolen without any verification that they are stolen.
In addition, the lawsuits allege that the company rents “stolen” cars to unsuspecting customers and supplies false information in theft reports by secretly deleting customer rental extensions and backdating rental due dates.
“For many years, The Hertz Corporation (‘Hertz’), along with its affiliates and subsidiaries, has been falsely reporting thousands of its own customers for stealing its rental cars. These theft reports are infected with serious problems that cause them to be false, misleading, and unverified,” one lawsuit states.
“Similarly, Hertz routinely loses track of its vehicles and rather than making a good faith effort to locate them, tells law enforcement that they are stolen … Hertz’s actions in knowingly and falsely reporting its own customers to the police represent one of the most striking instances of corporate malfeasance in decades. And even where Hertz knows it has falsely reported a customer to the police, it refuses to correct its error,” the lawsuit added.
In February, a Delaware bankruptcy court judge ordered Hertz, which declared bankruptcy in 2020, to publicize its data on theft reports that it had previously filed under seal. It was soon revealed that Hertz files about 3,365 police reports every year on alleged car theft.
The false arrests from its reports have had devastating impacts on many customers’ lives, such as that of Jenelle Reece-Williams.
According to a lawsuit, Reece-Williams rented a car from Hertz on 15 September 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada for two weeks. The lawsuit indicates that she put down a Capital One card for the rental and that her aunt put down a Wells Fargo card as extra security.
In early November, police suddenly approached Reece-Williams at a gas station in Charlotte, North Carolina one day and ordered her out of the car, stating that it was stolen. After being frisked in full view of the public, Reece-Williams was eventually taken to jail where she was imprisoned for two weeks in solitary confinement, the lawsuit states.
Reece-Williams had been charged with possessing a stolen vehicle. She was eventually bailed out. However, following her release, Reece-Williams found herself homeless and had no way of contacting her family who were also unaware of her whereabouts, according to the lawsuit.
It also states that Reece-Williams’ family was about to report her missing and had called child protective services (CPS) for her 11-year old son as she had “disappeared without a trace”. When Reece-Williams finally reappeared, her family was doubtful that she did not steal the vehicle. She also had to spend a significant amount of time convincing CPS that she was a fit mother.
“As a direct and proximate result of Hertz’s conduct, Ms Reece-Williams was falsely arrested, jailed for two weeks, prosecuted on criminal charges for theft, made homeless, almost lost her child to child services, had her personal and family relationships damaged, had her reputation destroyed, lost her possessions in the car, and has suffered severe mental and emotional harm, including anxiety, depression and sleeplessness,” the lawsuit states.
Another customer, Shontrell Higgs, also filed a claim against Hertz after she was falsely arrested in April 2019 in Broward county, Florida, for auto theft, despite extending and paying for her vehicle from Hertz. Higgs, a nurse, ended up spending 37 days in jail and says that she lost her job, missed her nursing school graduation and also suffered a miscarriage while incarcerated.
“Sitting in a cell, not knowing what’s next, and I’m telling them, like, ‘I have proof. I have the proof in my phone, it’s in my phone. All the evidence is in my phone,’” Higgs told WSVN.
Similarly, Pennsylvania resident Kelly Grady was arrested in 2017 after Hertz falsely accused her of stealing an SUV in 2013. Grady subsequently spent 12 days in jail. “It was humiliating. It was scary. It was horrible. It was degrading. I was sexually assaulted and gang beaten,” she told 6ABC.
At Grady’s trial, the judge instructed the jury that Hertz had destroyed her contract and payment information. “Had such information had not been destroyed the information it contained would have damaged Hertz’ defense of this case and shown that Grady did not steal the car and that she had done nothing criminal,” the judge said. Grady was eventually awarded $100,000 in damages.
In another instance, customer Nicholas Wright rented a car from Hertz with his family while on vacation in Savannah, Georgia in October 2021 and was falsely accused of theft. According to a lawsuit, 30 minutes after renting the car, 10 police cars surrounded the vehicle and held Wright and his 13-year old daughter at gunpoint for auto theft. “He learned the car had been reported stolen before he rented it,” the lawsuit said.
“It’s wrong primarily to the customer, who is a valid paying customer or has a business relationship. It’s wrong to the police, who were basically acting as strong arms for a private corporation. And it’s wrong to the taxpayers, who are basically having their funds diverted away from stopping crime or resolving issues in the community, by putting it towards a global corporation’s security and finding their own cars because they’re not doing it themselves,” Francis Malofiy, an attorney representing several customers in one of the many lawsuits against Hertz, told Atlanta Black Star.
“No company in America is arresting their very own customers at gunpoint over a civil payment dispute at most.”