Overly aggressive towing of vehicles pulls lawmakers into the issue

Authorities across nation taking action against unjustified removals


LOS ANGELES - There is probably no more infuriating sight for drivers than their car attached to a tow truck. But a spate of recent cases here in Southern California and across the country in which towers have been accused of being overly aggressive has riled not only motorists but prosecutors and lawmakers as well.

In one case here, a church's van was towed from its own parking lot; in another, a 4-year-old boy was towed away in his mother's car after she went inside her apartment for a few minutes to drop off groceries and a younger child.

And a man who ran alongside a tow truck, pleading to get his vehicle back after it was towed from a fire lane, died when he slipped and was run over by the truck and then his own Chevrolet Suburban.

Spurred by cases such as those, the authorities in Southern California are trying to rein in so-called predatory towing by truck drivers who are said to lurk around streets and parking lots, snatching up cars in an instant on the slightest violation - or sometimes when there is no violation at all.

Similar complaints have reached state, local and federal officials across the country. As part of the new federal highway bill, Congress approved legislation that allows states to enact certain restrictions on towing and orders a federal study of predatory towing practices.

Paradise for towing

With its dependence on cars, its crowded apartment complexes and the constant scramble for parking at beaches, Southern California is a tow-truck driver's paradise. But controversies have also arisen in Seattle; Orlando, Fla.; Arlington, Va.; Raleigh, N.C.; and other cities. In Schaumburg, Ill., workers in one office building stood in their parking lot during lunch hours to warn people about tow trucks lurking nearby.

Besides claims of unjustified towing, people have complained of exorbitant fees to get their cars released and of towers who accept only cash, not credit cards.

The Los Angeles police are conducting sting operations to catch illegal towers. The city attorney's office has filed misdemeanor charges against three towing companies since April. In the only case to reach court, the owner was sentenced to 240 days in jail or 120 days picking up trash on the highway and was ordered to pay about $15,000 in restitution to 35 victims.

One of the victims, the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, discovered that the old Toyota pickup it used to deliver goods to the poor had been taken from its own parking lot in the middle of the night. When asked who had authorized the tow, the company, which wanted more than $1,000 to release the truck, gave the church's address, said the church's executive director, Rod Sprott.

State legislators in Virginia held a hearing last month on whether a new towing law was needed. Jay O'Brien, the state senator leading the effort, said one complaint was of tow trucks patrolling apartment parking lots just after midnight on the first of the month, removing cars legally parked but whose registration had expired minutes before.

Valuable service

Tow truck operators say that while there are a few bad apples, they perform a valuable service, rescuing drivers after breakdowns and preserving parking spaces for the apartment and shopping center tenants and property managers who pay them to remove illegally parked vehicles.

Towing is regulated by many states and cities, but with limits. The Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 decreed that towers were interstate carriers, and that they were therefore subject only to federal regulation, except for matters pertaining to public safety.

On those grounds, a federal appeals court in 2000 invalidated a California law that required the property owner or the owner's representative to be present and give specific authorization for each tow, with a few exceptions such as cars in fire lanes.

The court decision chilled enforcement, leading to a rise in "patrol towing," in which tow trucks police parking lots and remove cars at their own discretion.

After California added safety language to its statute, the appeals court reversed itself in May.

Also, the new highway bill passed by Congress on Friday explicitly allows states to require property owners to authorize and be present at each tow.

In many cases the tows are arguably legal, but some people say the companies are too quick to act. The companies make money from the fees paid by vehicle owners to retrieve their cars, and many tow-truck drivers get a commission for each car.

Tow-truck operators say that a violation is a violation and that they often do not know how long a car has been parked.

"You shall not stop, park or leave standing any vehicle, whether attended or unattended," said Steve Holter, manager of Always Towing in Garden Grove, Calif., reciting the rules about fire lanes. "It doesn't say, `Except five minutes so you can unload your groceries.'"

Tow companies and apartment managers say that requiring permission for each tow is too time-consuming and inconvenient, especially late at night, when parking spaces are scarcest.

The requirement also needlessly puts one more person in harm's way, they say, because people get angry when their cars are towed.

"I've actually had guns pointed at me twice, been shot at once," said Eddie Gavaldon, a driver for Always Towing. His truck's windshield has two holes from a BB gun. Another driver was hit with a pipe by the owner of a car he was about to tow.

There is also a financial incentive for a quick exit. If the car's owner returns while the tow truck is on private property, the car must be released for only half the usual fee.

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