Lincoln Park Pirates Redux

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The New York Times takes a look at "predatory towing by truck drivers who are said to lurk around parking lots, snatching up cars in an instant on the slightest violation—or sometimes when there is no violation at all." Among the horror stories: a man run over by his own Chevy as it was hauled off, and a 4-year-old boy carried away in his mother's car.

Beyond the obvious malpractice, there's the matter of towers who simply enforce the rules too vigorously for comfort. In Virginia, "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."

I was going to take this opportunity either to denounce various thieving tow trucks my friends and I have encountered over the years or to compose a Randian paean to the profession as heroic defenders of private parking lots, but I think I'll just link to this site instead. For the California Tow Truck Association Code of Ethics, go here. For the lyrics to "Lincoln Park Pirates," go here.

NEXT: Tanks for Nothing

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  1. So if a car is towed illegally, arrest and prosecute the tow-truck driver for grand theft auto. Problem solved. (I’m thinking specifically here of the case where the church had its pickup towed out of its own parking lot.)

  2. I got towed out of my own spot twice by the a-holes our HOA hired to keep our private lots cleared. During the last one, the guy had actually jimmied my door open, pulled my parking pass off the mirror and stuffed it in one of the door pockets, then towed it away. Claimed my pass wasnt visible.

    There is virtually no chance it fell off by itself in the middle of the night, and fluttered across the cab of my car, alighting perfectly in the door pocket AND my door just happened to be unlocked.

    When i told them exactly what I believed their driver had done, they said “are you calling our guy a liar?” I said yes, that’s exactly right. And a criminal to boot.

    Anyway, long story short, i made good on my threat to have their contract pulled. Our HOA terminated its contract with BATTLEFIELD TOWING with immediate effect that same week.

    Not a good long-term economic decision to clip a Board member for 90 bucks like that. Oh well. Sucks to be lying crime committing scumbag, eh Battlefield?

  3. I know Franks Towing personally. Once, during a move, I double parked my pickup, loaded with furniture, behind my parents cars. Legal for fifteen minutes, according to the neighborhood bylaws. I went in to pickup a rug, came out well within fifteen minutes, truck gone.

    Absolutely Fucking Infuriated, I went to Franks towing, bylaws in hand. Arguement ensued, shotgun in face, police real-fucking-quick to the scene. I left with my truck, 165.00$ lighter in the wallet. So, Jennifer, in response to your post

    hahahahahahahaahahahahahaha Ho Ho hahahahahahahahahahaha!

  4. Matt–

    That’s why the laws need to change. They never will, since corruption is too endemic, but they need to.

  5. I don’t understand why people don’t just take these punks on the old-fashioned way; bury them in repetitive and punitive litigation.

    If that weapon can be used against tobacco companies, why can’t it be employed against Frank’s Towing, who so much more obviously deserves it?

  6. We had a similar situation in the town where I went to college. There were 3 towing companies, but they all shared the same dispatch and lot (presumable they were all at least partly owned by the same parent company.) They would prowl the apartment complex parking lots looking for violators, mainly “guests” of residents who did not have a parking permit for the lot. Basically they had an agreement with the landlords. I had my truck towed because my permit (on the inside of the back window) was obscured by a recently added bumper sticker (on the outside.) Removing the obstructing bumper sticker did nothing to get my $150 back. Also ridiculous regarding the “Guest” issue, because parking overnight was not allowed on the streets, ticketable but not towable, and many Apartment lots were nowhere near capacity at any given time.

    On a side note, we had a car parked for several days in the parking lot at the restaurant I worked at during high school. I called the tow company in town to have it removed. They said that I would need to file a police report, and that the car would need to remain there for an additional 48 hours before they could come and tow it, from a private lot, where the car had no reasonable business being. Additionally, the restaurant who wanted the car towed would need to pay the towing fee up-front, no mention as to whether we would ever be reimbursed for it.

    With that in mind, I never bothered to check the bylaws at college, but there was a ton of shady goings-on that took place regularly, because landlords, tow companies, etc., realize that college students for the most part are ignorant, and at the very least they do not have the money or the time to challenge anything in court.

  7. Fluffy — small claims court isnt expensive. And your basic towing company sends its secretary to small claims every month with a folder of 12-15 cases to do.

    You lose 90, 100 bucks, you can’t sue in federal court over it, and they’re not hiring the “Dream Team” to defend.

    besides, they more than make their money back against the smart alecks who sue them. Many of these self-appointed Johnnie Cochrans perform such innovative self-help maneuvers as “write a check to get my car back, then stop payment on it when i get home.” The towers are always happy to get those, cuz in many states there’s a triple face value of $1500 civil penalty that gets tacked on. I used to be a debt collector back in the day out in Calif, and one of our clients made more money on the civil penalties than they did on towing.

    Suffice to say, anything clever you think you might come up with, they’ve seen it 100 times.

  8. Hell with fines for these folks?we need horsewhipping.

  9. I was involved in a dubious towing once. And I have no remorse:

    Some guy parked in somebody else’s assigned space in my complex’s garage. The rightful tenant of the space shows up and sees that his spot is taken. So, rather than parking on the street (I know, easier said than done, but still) while waiting for the tow company, he parked behind the car in his spot…blocking my spot. Here’s my best ASCII graphics rendition:

    i
    ——————— d
    i
    illegally parked car o
    t
    ——————— ‘
    s
    my empty spot
    c
    ——————— a
    r

    Well, I show up, and all I see is that some idiot is blocking my spot. So I call the towing company, not realizing that they’re already on the way (and they neglect to tell me that fact). They show up, and the guy who blocked my spot still isn’t there. But I am there. So I point to the idiot’s car and tell them to remove it. They do, and I go get my car. A little while later, this guy comes to my apartment (I didn’t know him, but my apartment number was on the spot) and demands to know if I had him towed. He seemed pissed, so I played dumb and said that I just got home. (Which I did, technically, since I had just gotten back from going out to get my car.) So he went off grumbling about how it’s BS that he has to pay to get his own car back after somebody parked in his spot.

    I think he was an idiot, but at the same time I agree it was kind of messed up that the towing company never mentioned that they had already been called.

  10. OK, that didn’t show up right. But I hope you can figure out that the idiot’s car is blocking access to my space.

  11. Small claims isn’t the best venue. Figure out how to get a State AG into the act. Look into it as a pattern of corruption or racketeering. If you figure out how to threaten the guy with the gold chains behind the glass, I think you’ll get farther than by suing the low-rent schlub driving the truck

    The tow guys are doing a valid service, but the reactions of people who don’t read the signs help reinforce the brutishness that seems to come with towing. If there ever was a clean, intelligent and fair tow guy, how many times being chased with a pipe would it take to turn him into a vindictive lout?

  12. One more reason to prefer life in the suburbs… abundant parking.

    I’m still trying to figure out what makes “sprawl” a bad thing.

  13. Christ, I can’t think of another situation that made me more angry. I was walking my girlfriend and her teenaged daughter to the parking lot late one cold evening, and found her car gone. The girls were hysterical. The teenager didn’t even have a coat, and I gave her mine.

    We find out that some sub-human towtruck scum came in and stole her car, because the tags were VERY RECENTLY expired (I’ll say one or two days). These fucking assholes charged my girl the mileage (the yard was in another town), plus all these other bullshit fees.

    I feel true hatred towards these people. True evil. I don’t care about what laws are involved. This is criminal.

  14. One more reason to prefer life in the suburbs

    Or… one more reason to prefer life in the city: I don’t NEED a car.

  15. For those who feel downtrodden, I recently took the towing company for Crystal Houses Apartments (A-1 Towing Company) to court where they were found liable for fraud and had to pay triple the actual damages. It was a painful experience to say the least and very time consuming…but worth it to me. Sadly, Charles E. Smith, Inc. who owns the apartment complex is still reported to contract with this company despite requests to stop by several of their residents.

  16. Actually, Rhywun,

    I’m with you on not needing a car in the city.

    I’m spending the summer in a big city (a couple of hours away from the small city where I go to school), and realized that my car would be a bigger liability than an asset. Parking at my building is $150/month, and parking near the office is about $25/day.

    In the end, I decided to bring my bike instead and leave my car with my parents in the suburbs, where parking is free.

    To continue the story, my bike was stolen about a month after I arrived (welcome to the big city), costing me about $1400. So assuming that my car wouldn’t have suffered a similar fate, it would have been cheaper to pay for parking after all.

  17. “One more reason to prefer life in the suburbs… abundant parking.”

    99% of towing complaints happen in suburban areas. True “cities” don’t have a lot of parking subject to towing laws. How often do you ever even SEE a surface lot in, say, downtown San Francisco?

    This towing crap is actually an inevitable consequence of too much FREE parking. If parking were priced (as it is in true cities), the people selling you your space would have a natural incentive not to screw you with marginal tows.

  18. MNG: Your tale has an element common to many of the tow victims. Quite often the complaint is, “I was only just a little bit in violation.” With sympathy for your difficulties, your were in violation. It is as if when our cars are taken, we suddenly become children pleading for lenience. If the nanny state is wrong to tell you what to eat, it is equally wrong for the nanny to give you an understanding pat on the head rather than whatever fine your voluntary behaviour merits.

    Selective enforcement and reliance upon officer (or tow guy) judgement is an invitation to abuse. How can we expect to be treated as adults in the grocery line if we park like ignorant children in the red zone?

  19. Dynamist:

    Selective enforcement indeed. I’m not making this up: in the same lot, an abandoned car sat there for several weeks with friendly warning stickers by management (stating that in X amount of time, they were going to call in a tow). The reason why they didn’t tow the car in 10 seconds, obviously, was because they probably weren’t going to collect on it.

    This isn’t about law enforcement or public safety. It’s about making money. Period.

    And I certainly don’t condone parking in fire lanes. A few minutes with lights flashing? We all do that. But it’s risky and the driver should eat that risk.

    But in the case I described, my girlfriend was legally parked on private property, and wasn’t presenting a clear and present harm.

    I’m also pissed at my apartment management. Obviously they give permission for these jackals to come on their property. I would say there may be even collusion. And don’t give me the typical libertarian rejoiner that I can always move out..

    Have you ever been towed?

  20. Dynamist has a point. These cases arouses little sympathy in me if the violator really is violating whatever agreement is in place at the time of parking. In most places, parking rules are barely enforced at all – no wonder people have come to expect leniency when they break the rules.

  21. I live in Gainesville FL where tow trucks roam the streets like packs of hyenas. There are two words here that strike fear in the hearts of every commuter and college student… “ROAM TOWING”. These nofarious bloodsucking pricks should all be stabbed in the hearts and their profit ridden collaborators should be hung by their testicles in public squares…

  22. Such venom spewed at people trying to make a buck, on a libertarian website. Curious…

  23. Rhywun–

    If it were an honest buck rather than legalized car theft things would be different.

  24. I’m sure that this guy would have some interesting input on the situation discussed here:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/3112670.stm

  25. Small claims isn’t the best venue. Figure out how to get a State AG into the act. Look into it as a pattern of corruption or racketeering.

    See my post above re “they’ve seen it 100 times.”

    Time was, EVERYTHING from coffee spills to paper cuts were pled as “civil RICO” actions. Suffice to say, the pleading requirements have been tightened WAY up since then. As far as AG’s, yeah every now and again they’ll do something with the towers, but… the practices and complaints are well known. Unless they start up some new kind of malicious behaviors, the AG isn’t really going to care.

    Not to say the tow guys DON’T engage in RICO type violations; I can see where a prima facie case could be made out re certain practices; i’m just saying that (a) they’re hard as bejeesus to get to a jury on, and (b) the tow guys are sitting there waiting with pre-fab defense in hand.

    While Paul Plaintiff struggles with figuring out a way to survive the motion to dismiss, Tommy Towtruck’s attorney already knows how he’s going to dismember the remains of the case in the unlikely event it ever gets past that point.

  26. Towers are the scum of the earth.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Dan.

    Why do serial killers have to target poor your women? Why can’t they go after people in the towing buisness?

  27. Beacuse serial killers tend to be assholes, Kwais.

  28. It’s simple grammar to me:

    scum
    scummier
    tow truck drivers

  29. If it were an honest buck rather than legalized car theft things would be different.

    It seems like most of these incidents are, as Jesse put it, a “matter of towers who simply enforce the rules too vigorously for comfort”. If you park in a tow-away zone you should expect your car to get towed away. Sure, there’s a lot of dishonesty here, but that’s only because lax enforcement has taught people they can get away with almost completely ignoring any parking rules when it suits them. If people actually paid more attention to the rules, there would be less money to make off of them, and less dishonesty.

  30. Couldn’t someone who was themselves a lawyer, and thus had nearly zero cost to litigate, repeatedly attempt to get certification for all victims of illegal towing practices as a class?

    That would bounce the procedings out of small claims court, which admittedly is no more than a nuisance.

    I don’t know if you could necessarily win, but wouldn’t the ongoing costs of defending such claims constitute a burden that would provide an incentive for towers to change their behavior?

  31. I personally believe that someone should be able to win a suit against the city of VA beach. There are more drunk drivers in VA beach, and the reason for that is the towing policies.

    People drive their cars out to clubs or bars, they park their car, and pay for parking or whatever, and go to the club. Then when they leave the club, they have a choice a) Drive drunk and risk getting a DUI, or b) Catch a cab, have your car towed, pay the $150 (a big deal but you maybe spent more than that in the bar), and have some jackass fuck with your car.

    Most people are statistically going to chose b. They think that they can get away with it. And statistically they can.

    Therefore the policies of towing vehicles parked past 3am leads directly to drunk driving. One day when there is an accident, the victime should sue the city.

    Why can’t there be a PLO or Hamas that fights towing companies?

  32. Dan: You the man.

    Jennifer:

    Maybe they can call us “Honest Dollar” libertarians.. 🙂

  33. ind. worm: I’m not suggesting it would be easy, and I acknowledge that the towers have a well-prepared defense, but look what Rudy G did to Times Square. If the people want it bad enough, they can elect people to change the regs and go after the towers. It probably would take a combination of efforts, with a city council changing the regs and a State or Fed investigator uncovering the kickbacks and other corruption that is almost certainly part of many towing contracts.

    MNG: I’ve been towed. I’ve had violators towed. I’ve been confronted by people with various weapons because they thought the rules shouldn’t apply to them. And I’ve been towed some more. I consider it a calculated risk. I read the signs, try to keep aware of which companies are more “proactive”, and take my choice. The tow guys are a private enforcement service with control over their own revenue, so I say it is about both enforcement (of property rights) and money.

    Meter maids are in the same class as tow guys, IMHO. I used to equate both with baby rapers, but I’ve since met a few of each that seem like decent folk just doing a job. (Tow guys and meter maids that is; baby rapers are in it just for the love… 🙂 )

  34. Tangent Alert– Goose Island, for the meetup in Lincoln Park, Chicago, claims to have ample free parking. What a relief!

  35. People drive their cars out to clubs or bars

    I think that’s your problem right there. Maybe people who know they’re going to get drunk should lower the chances of an accident by leaving their cars at home.

    Meter maids are in the same class as tow guys, IMHO.

    Their job is to enforce rules which are intended to regulate a scarce resource (parking). People don’t seem to have such a hard time understanding this concept, except when it’s applied to their cars.

  36. “Their job is to enforce rules which are intended to regulate a scarce resource (parking). People don’t seem to have such a hard time understanding this concept, except when it’s applied to their cars.”

    Some of have a hard time understanding it when every parking meter in a given city accepts only quarters, with parking time allotted in those 25- cent increments. And in my experience, such restrictive meters are in a whole lot of places.

    If it were truly about the scarcity of parking area, they’d encourage shorter parking stints by offering the option of buying a nickel or dime’s worth of minutes.

  37. offering the option of buying a nickel or dime’s worth of minutes

    I bet we’re not long from RFID meters that charge your car for exactly how long you’ve been parked, alert meter HQ when you’re expired, and if the union doesn’t bitch too much, automatically issue a citation without human involvement.

  38. 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, the church’s executive director Rod Sprott, said.

    Serves the church right for having the gall to park its tacky old truck in–of all places!–a church parking lot, huh?

    Even in cases where the car deserves to be towed, I think the high cost outweighs the offense. A milder version of how I feel about Saudi Arabia–I agree stealing is wrong and should be punished, but I think cutting off a hand for a first offense is going too far.

    How about have tow truck drivers work for a flat fee, rather than this system which rewards them for being dishonest at worst, or needlessly assholic at best?

    I take it you no-leeway guys would be totally fine with it if a cop ticketed you for going 66 in a 65 zone.

  39. I take it you no-leeway guys would be totally fine with it if a cop ticketed you for going 66 in a 65 zone

    Only because I know that I’m in the bottom quartile of speed on the highway, and nearly everbody gets away with breaking the law to a greater degree than I do. Selective and incomplete enforcement sucks.

    Plus, at only one over, I’ve got a good chance of beating it in court.

  40. If it were truly about the scarcity of parking area

    Y’know, sometimes the appearance of charging for scarcity really is charging for scarcity, even when the state does it.

  41. First, I agree that there are lots of corrupt towers that deserve a beating.

    Second, I think people who are in violation of parking rules deserve to get ticketed or towed.

    Third, some of you will think me evil for the following:

    I used to work for a company across the street from the Redwood City Courthouse. People visiting the courthouse would regularly park in our parking lot, mainly to avoid feeding the meters across the street. My corner cubical had a perfect view of the lot and I knew all vehicles that belonged to my fellow employees, so I would see whenever anyone parked in the lot that didn’t belong. It was quite the fun game calling the tow company for each and every violation. The joy of seeing the cars (Mercedes, Porches, Jags, Land Rovers, etc. belonging mainly to lawyers) being towed made my day, every day, until the fools eventually wised up and quit parking in our lot. Oh, what fun I and my fellow employees had; especially, when the lawyer would come out of the courthouse just as their vehicle was being towed! It was beautiful!

  42. New Haven, CT had a great scam going for tow truck drivers. Every few months there would be street sweeping, and woe to any cars left in the morning as the fleets of tow truck drivers descended; it was like shooting fish in a barrel. It was simply too hard to be informed enough to avoid it every single time. I was eventually towed when I came home late at night, and there were only a couple of signs posted on trees on my block. It was dark, and I didn’t happen to pass one of the posters between my parking space and my house. I’m sure tow companies made half their yearly income on those days.

    I hate street sweeping.

  43. I think people who are in violation of parking rules deserve to get ticketed or towed.

    You are technically correct, but there should be a middle ground for common sense. If conditions make it safe to do so, I have no problem with someone going 27mph in a 25 zone. If one parks illegally for a couple minutes, or when it will obviously harm no one, one shouldn’t have to worry about you’re car disappearing.

    And since when are tow trucks enforcing license expirations? Boggles my brain.

  44. >since when are tow trucks enforcing license expirations?

    That’s what I don’t understand. I should think private lot owners should be able to contract with towing companies to tow or boot cars that violate their posted parking terms. But such companies shouldn’t be able to do the work of enforcing laws. That’s police bailiwick. Individuals shouldn’t be able to routinely make a buck off their neighbors in that way.

  45. To continue the story, my bike was stolen about a month after I arrived (welcome to the big city), costing me about $1400. So assuming that my car wouldn’t have suffered a similar fate, it would have been cheaper to pay for parking after all.

    Not to sound like a total prick, and I’m sure the thought has occurred to you in the meanwhile, but bringing a $1400 bicycle into a big city is a pretty hayseed thing to do in the first place.

  46. there should be a middle ground for common sense

    One citizen’s idea of common sense is another officer’s idea of making a point (or a quota). If the law cannot be fully enforced, repeal it.

    companies shouldn’t be able to do the work of enforcing laws

    I agree. Such would seem to curtail much of this abuse. A duly sworn and trained officer would have to write the citation, then a contracted service could tow the car to city impound. I believe that the actual practice in some places.

  47. Dynamist:

    Exactly! In my tale of woe, there was no police officer involved.. just some inbread lowlife fuckhead with a beaten-up truck prowling around a private parking lot after hours.

    In the article they say a good compromise is to have the property owner ON SITE and sign for the tow. I think that would’ve helped in my case. When I stomped into the management’s office, the girl there told me a bunch of bullshit that they have “no control” over what violations the jackals “enforce”.

    Like I said.. if a car is camped out in a fire lane, blocking entrances/other cars, even occupying handicapped spots.. tow their asses away.. I have no problem with that.

  48. “inbred”… and let me add “sub-human piece of shit”

    and I didn’t even mention Jabba the Hutt behind the six inches of glass (in a nice warm office while a teenaged girl and a dedicated female public school teacher shivered out in the cold)

  49. As a few have timidly noted, it’s awesome how many purported libertarians turn into big-government-lovers when it comes to the rights of private property owners to enter into contracts with towing companies.

    Hint: When it comes to driving, parking, and everything related to cars, most of you need to look long and hard at why the hell you’re not just sucking it up and calling yourselves Republicans.

  50. Serafina,

    “But such companies shouldn’t be able to do the work of enforcing laws. That’s police bailiwick.”

    Most cities enter into contracts with towing companies for things more serious than simply excceeding the time on a parking meter. If somebody’s parked where there’s a no-parking sign, presumably there’s a reason, and a simple ticket isn’t going to satisfy the need of the city to keep that space clear of cars. Having the city maintain its own fleet of towers to handle this situation would be even bigger government. As noted, though, I guess ‘libertarian’ is code for ‘hands off everything except when it comes to my car, at which point please subsidize and protect me’.

    IF IT’S NOT LEGAL, DON’T PARK THERE. This solves the problem for all but a tiny number of scumbag towing companies (see boingboing for details on a couple of notable ones).

  51. dead_elvis,

    If you want to park your car for free on a publically-owned street, I’d argue it’s your obligation to know and understand the rules inherent in the bargain. Had you paid directly for the privilege, you might get more sympathy from me.

    I continue to be flabbergasted at the willingness of reasonoids to castigate people for wanting the government to regulate things like fast-food marketing, nutritional labelling, etc.; yet all of the sudden they don’t like having to take responsibility for their own actions when it comes to their beloved car.

  52. You’re confusing the issue, M1EK. I’m talking about parking in private parking lots who have contracted with a towing company to enforce their regulations. Private companies have no business enforcing government regulations like license tabs. Their only concern in such cases should be the parking policies of the lot owner.

    Parking illegally on the public streets is a completely different matter, and no one ever suggested that a city should maintain its own towing fleet rather than contracting with private towers. But here at least, the police must ticket and request the tow. Towing companies aren’t deputized to enforce government regulations, nor should they be.

  53. M1EK, its painfully obvious that you should be acknowledged as the One True Libertarian here. You have exposed the many poseurs who post here as the “wannabee libertarians they are”. They are nothing like yourself though. You are the Real Thing through and through, and that is far superior to the wannabee kind.

    Kudos to you sir. Your ideological purity stands as a shining monument to us all.

  54. dude:
    where’s your car?

    While you were in the internet cafe, I just made $165 off you! Hope you got cab fare.

    Hahahaha *snort* hahahah!

  55. If one parks illegally for a couple minutes, or when it will obviously harm no one, one shouldn’t have to worry about you’re car disappearing.

    This boggles my mind. I shouldn’t have to point out that if rules aren’t enforced, they aren’t followed. Drivers who know they can risk parking almost anywhere they want to at any time are often the same assholes who start ignoring other little “inconveniences” like stop signs and traffic signals.

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