photo by Brian Gurrola
Over a three-year period, 3,000 cars disappeared from a lot near downtown Fort Lauderdale, Fla., not too far from my home, according to a recent investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
At another lot, in Broward County’s vast Sawgrass Mills shopping complex, 300 people returned to empty parking spots on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) in 2011.
The problem is serious, and it has spurred residents and local officials to action. But the issue isn’t car thieves; it is towing companies using predatory tactics to jack up profits. The cars that were removed were all in violation of at least minor parking restrictions and were legally, if not reasonably, towed.
Private property owners have every right to decide who can park on their property and under what conditions. They can set hours for parking, reserve spaces for their own customers, and even prohibit certain methods of parking, such as backing into spaces. They can also take action to enforce their rules.
In some situations, such as when an improperly parked vehicle blocks the entrance to a lot or causes a safety hazard, prompt towing is the most responsible course. But while property owners’ ultimate interest is simply maintaining their property, that’s not the case for towing companies that enter into agreements to tow offending vehicles. Towing companies want to remove as many vehicles as they can, whether towing is reasonable under the circumstances or not.
One common approach is for the tow companies to hire “spotters,” who patrol lots and report violations, relieving property owners of inconveniences they haven’t yet noticed. When the tow trucks arrive, they work fast. With the help of some lock-picking tools, one Fort Lauderdale towing company removed a pair of improperly parked cars in no more than 90 seconds, the Sun-Sentinel reported.
Once towing companies have a vehicle in their grip, they can essentially hold it for ransom, demanding whatever the law allows before they release their prey. Washington State Rep. Gerry Pollett, who sponsored legislation to combat such so-called “predatory towing” practices in Seattle, reported hearing from constituents who had “been towed and charged from $500 up to $2,000 to get their car back after a simple parking mistake.”
Controversies over predatory towing have played out across the country, from Washington state to Washington, D.C., which a survey by the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America revealed to be one of the worst cities for towing.
Not atypically, California’s regulations are among the strictest. This is one of the rare cases where I think that state’s regulatory fervor is, at least for the most part, justified. Under California law, tow truck companies must obtain authorization from property owners for each individual tow, rather than simply signing general contracts for entire properties. The authorization request must include the specific vehicle’s make, model, VIN and license plate number. The law also prohibits companies from towing vehicles within an hour of when they are first observed, except in exceptional circumstances.
My own Broward County has adopted some of the same measures as the California law, including the provision mandating that towing companies obtain authorization for individual tows, though without the specific requirement of VIN numbers, which I think is a step too far in any case. The use of paid spotters has also been prohibited.
But so far, these regulations have had little effect in my town. Several towing companies and property managers interviewed by the Sun-Sentinel said they had not heard about the new regulations until they were informed by the journalists. Unlike laws passed in neighboring Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, the Broward regulations do not require licenses for towing companies, so the county has little recourse against repeat offenders.
Tow truck companies claim that the wave of restrictions on their business stops them from doing their job. In a blog post defending his industry, David Kimball, a consultant and former tow truck operator, coined the phrase “predatory parking,” essentially arguing that those who violate posted rules get what is coming to them.
That argument would hold more water if there were never dark nights, or rain storms, or tree branches that obscure signs. Or if there was no legal concept of proportionality of damages. If your child’s baseball breaks my window, I can rightly ask you to pay for a new window. I don’t get to keep your child until you reimburse me. (Not even if you ask me to.)
Often enough, people who are towed have no idea that they are parking where they shouldn’t. Even if motorists are willfully ignoring property owners’ rules, the punishment ought to fit the crime. When the crime is parking in a private lot without permission, the punishment of hundreds of dollars in towing fees doesn’t fit. A more fitting compensation would be a fine paid directly to the property owner, perhaps equal to the value of a day’s parking in that locale. Booting is a more logical approach to dealing with the problem than towing.
Property owners may see no harm in giving tow truck operators the run of their lots. In fact, some even make money from kickbacks - another practice Broward County regulation prohibits. In the long run, however, widespread predatory towing discourages people from frequenting certain areas. This is particularly problematic in tourist-centric Florida, where the local economy depends on pleasing out-of-towners, who cannot be expected to know the ins and outs of every private lot. It is hard to have a great vacation when you’re touring the local impound lots, rather than the beaches or museums.
Maybe my hometown will switch to booting rather than towing; maybe not. Either way, towing practices that punish minor infractions with disproportionate costs need to be given the boot.