Beware of Parking Pirates
By Randy Grider
Ever parked on an empty lot of a closed business on a weekend even though the property owners prohibit trucks? You might think to yourself, “I’ll grab a quick supper at the restaurant next door. No one will be the wiser.”
Think again. A seemingly unoccupied lot may not be as vacant as it appears. And it may not be the property owners or the police who leave you wondering what happened to your truck when you return.
Many property owners across the country enter into contracts with towing companies to patrol and remove illegally parked vehicles on private lots. Many municipalities also contract with towing companies to patrol public streets and “relocate” parking violators to impound yards. Good tow operators work within set legal parameters, use common sense and serve their clients and communities well.
But as in any business there are always a few bad apples. In the towing profession, the practice of roam or predatory towing for the singular purpose of creating a windfall for the towing company is considered unscrupulous.
Spotters for these towing companies often look for violators 24/7, operating just within the boundaries of the law and sometimes outside the law. Seedy towing companies have been known to line up outside a business until closing time and then “sweep a parking lot,” often towing the vehicles of the business’ patrons who lingered in the business after the doors were locked.
Giving a towing company absolute power to patrol and enforce a contract sometimes goes beyond the property owner’s original intent.
Company truck drivers Larry Wiseman and Gregory Williams found out the hard way that parking on private lots can carry a hefty price. On April 16, the two drivers had their bobtail rigs “towed” from a shopping center parking lot in Melrose Park, Ill., while waiting for their next dispatched load and enjoying lunch at a fast-food restaurant on the premises. The trucks were actually hotwired and driven off the parking lot by a local towing company. No towing apparatus was used.
It cost the drivers $2,200 each to get their trucks back. They had to have the money wired to them from their company. The towing company, which is under contract with the property owner, says trucks are prohibited on the lot. Wiseman claims there was no signage on the lot to that effect. Aside from a sign with the name of the towing company and rates for various vehicles (semis were not listed), he says the only signage dealing with trucks was at one entry point to the lot that prohibited entrance from the roadway. Another sign stated where trucks could enter the shopping center from another road.
Wiseman feels he was the victim of predatory towing. He says the ticket from the towing company noted that the trucks arrived on the lot at 9:06 a.m., but the trucks weren’t removed until after the two men left the trucks more than two hours later to walk to the restaurant. “Obviously, a spotter was waiting for us to leave our trucks,” he says. “If it were illegal to park there, they had more than two hours to tell us to leave.”
Wiseman says he was also upset that when they noticed his truck being removed, the two ran to Williams’ truck, but the men from the towing company refused to relinquish it.
“Under these towing contracts, the towing company is judge, jury and executioner,” Wiseman says.
The two are planning to sue the towing company to recoup the towing fees. While these two drivers are going to have to wrangle their way through a civil case, some relief from predatory towing practices may be on the horizon. U.S. House Bill 3 contains a provision that seeks to curb predatory towing. It comes on the heels of an incident in California in which a young child was towed away in a car by a tow operator who was in a hurry to leave before the child’s mother returned.
While Wiseman is happy to see pending legislation dealing with the towing problems, he still says parkers beware. “My recommendation to other truckers is if there is signage from a police or sheriff’s department, you’ll probably be all right as long as specifically there’s no prohibition of trucks,” he says. “If the signage lists a towing company, don’t park there.”