Is there any recourse for being towed for invalid / incorrect reasons?
January 31, 2005 12:47 PM   Subscribe

A friend’s car sat parked legally* on the street outside our house for approx 6 months. It was towed last week for being “parked on the grass” and for not “possessing a valid parking permit.” While there may have been other valid reasons for it to get towed, it was certainly not parked on the grass, nor did it need a permit to be parked there. The towing company denies wrongdoing (obviously) is doing everything possible to avoid responsibility. [MI]

The towing company’s office alternates between saying the car was in the adjacent lot that required a permit (an impossibility as the car was disabled and could not be moved) and saying it was parked in the grass (there was no grass close to where the car was parked). Our other friends and neighbors can affirm it’s location, so it’s not just my friend’s word v. the tow truck driver’s.

Furthermore, the towing company will not allow the driver to provide additional clarification, claiming “drivers are not allowed in the main office.” And requests to speak to a manager or owner get the response “he’ll be in in a few days” to most recently “he won’t be back until next month” (as in March). Requests to file a dispute got the response “ain’t no one going to care here.”

Towing fees are already more than $200, and they are charging $18/day to “store” the car. What should my friend do?
posted by fourstar to Law & Government (22 answers total)
Call a lawyer. And I'll second the police. Sounds like theft to me.
posted by Kellydamnit at 12:52 PM on January 31, 2005

Response by poster: Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that the car is completely disabled so even if he pays the towing fees, he can't drive the thing off the towing company's lot.
posted by fourstar at 12:52 PM on January 31, 2005

I assume that this towing took place in or near Austin, Texas, since that's where your profile is. If that's the case, Vehicle Towing provides useful information. Follow the links. The locality that you're in may provide help, if not, it has a link to how you can go to court to attempt to fight the towing company.

A lawyer is a good idea. Police probably won't help since in most places it doesn't count as "theft" if the towing company is licenced--even if they towed you from a place they don't have permission to do so. Contact your local governmental offices to see if they can help. Then a lawyer. Or a local TV station if all else fails. Your friend might make a good segment.
posted by skynxnex at 12:56 PM on January 31, 2005

Mention to the towing guys next time you call them that you will be calling the police and referring the manner to them. Say the word "theft". See if that does anything. If you really do have the law on your side w/r/t permits and the grass issue, you should be golden.
posted by xmutex at 12:56 PM on January 31, 2005

You could always try small claims court.
posted by reverendX at 1:16 PM on January 31, 2005

While there may have been other valid reasons for it to get towed, it was certainly not parked on the grass, nor did it need a permit to be parked there.

I think you need to first figure out whether it was towed for a legal reason and just noted down wrong, or whether it was towed capriciously. You're going to have a lot less recourse with the former problem than the latter. In Seattle, parking a car on the street, even in a freee legal parking place for over 24 hours is a towable offense. Whether or not you are towed for it depends a lot on what neighborhood you're in, how well you get on with your neighbors and what sort of car you have. Where I live now, it's a towable offense to have a non-running car parked on the street. In many places, you can't have uninspected/unregistered cars parked on the street, etc.

The towing people do need to be accountable for why they towed your car, either by talking to you, or by being made to tell a lawyer, or the police, or a judge. However, your case is going to be made much stronger if it's clear that you understand the law, you understand that you were within your rights [while I agree with your case on a personal level, legally it's unclear what your rights are to have a non-running car on the street where you live] and that you have been making good faith efforts to work this out with the towing company.

So, try as hard as you can to get your car out of hock to staunch the money hemhorrage in case your friend does want their car back at some point and you don't win this one. Document the hell out of all of your contacts with the towing company. Figure out what your legal recourse is and then diligently work towards a legal solution. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 1:26 PM on January 31, 2005

If the car has been disabled for six months, is it really worth getting upset about?
posted by mischief at 1:31 PM on January 31, 2005

Call a lawyer and see what she says.

I think the theft angle has a lot going for it.
posted by bshort at 1:36 PM on January 31, 2005

If the car has been disabled for six months, is it really worth getting upset about?

The towing and storage fees certainly are, I'd say.
posted by squidlarkin at 1:42 PM on January 31, 2005

Sometimes towing a car actually is auto theft. It's going to depend on the laws in your area. I managed to retrieve a car from a towing company one time by threatening to call the police. They acted like there was nothing I could do right up until I mentioned that they stole my car and I was calling the police. Then they turned it over.
posted by gummo at 1:52 PM on January 31, 2005

jessamyn is right, when it comes to getting the car out of the lot as soon as possible. Mitigating your damages here is important. If you're proven right, then you may get your money back (or at least part of it). If you're proven wrong, then you're going to get jammed for the whole shebang, like it or not.
posted by Witty at 1:56 PM on January 31, 2005

Jessamyn beat me to it, but it's worth saying again: in many municipalities, you can't leave your car on the street for more than 24 hours. Many people do, but it's understood to be at your own risk.

My suggestion: pay the towing fees now, don't rack up the storage fees (which will accrue no matter who's in the right), sell the car off and cut the losses.

Towing companies tangle with far hairier customers than you or your friend on a daily basis.

Long story short: don't store junk on a public street. $200 for 6 months of parking space is a screamin' deal, no matter which way you slice it.
posted by Aquaman at 1:57 PM on January 31, 2005

pay the towing fees now, don't rack up the storage fees (which will accrue no matter who's in the right), sell the car off and cut the losses

You can pay the fees "under protest" (don't sign anything) to stop them from accruing, and then (if you want) sell the car, but you'll still have recourse to small claims court to recover your money. [on preview, as Witty said.]

Unless your research shows that you're wrong about the legality of the parking, you should be documenting everything, including writing down (to the best of your memory) what has already happened. In fact, it might be amusing, when you go to the towing company to get the car, to bring someone with you to videotape what is said. Just make sure he's a big guy. (Maybe a few big friends wouldn't hurt, just so things stay civil.)

And if you do sell the car before things are settled, you might want to videotape it first (with a person doing narration) to help prove that it's in fact inoperable, although it's unclear to me that this is a key fact (an inoperable vehicle could still have been located just about anywhere).
posted by WestCoaster at 2:41 PM on January 31, 2005

Even if the parking was illegal, it's my understanding that this was privately towed, was it not? Sounds to me like they don't have a (legal) leg to stand on.
posted by neckro23 at 3:15 PM on January 31, 2005

I didn't notice anybody mentioning this, but in consumer dispute cases, always ALWAYS ALWAYS do as much as possible in writing. If you talk to somebody on the phone, get his name and follow up with a letter (keep a copy for yourself). "Dear So-and-so, Thank you for speaking with me today, January 31st, at about 3:15 p.m. You told me that you took my car fair and square, and that I could just get stuffed. If I have misunderstood you, please contact me for clarification. Thank you, etc."
It only costs 37 cents for each one, and they can be invaluable. The person you're sending them to will recognize what's happening (or he's an idiot) and may behave more reasonably. If push comes to shove, you'll look much better in court if you can pull out a stack of letters that show you did what you claim, on the dates you say, and the other guy gave you an unreasonably hard time.
posted by spacewrench at 4:48 PM on January 31, 2005

In some planned communities (aka McTowns) in Southern California (and perhaps elsewhere), you can even have cars towed from your own driveway. I'm not sure why that's legal but it happened to a friend of mine (when her daughter left her crappy car in their driveway when she went away to school). These are the kind of places where you can be fined for things like hanging laundry outside.

And here in MA, many towns have ordinances that make it an offense to "store" vehicles on the street; storing is defined as not moving them within a given length of time. I've been burnt by that one when I didn't move my truck for three days during a snowstorm.

Even if the parking was illegal, it's my understanding that this was privately towed...

In the Boston area, all vehicles are towed by private companies that are authorized to do so by the municipality. The towing company gets a cut of the fine or charges a separate towing/storage fee.
posted by TimeFactor at 5:08 PM on January 31, 2005

many towns have ordinances that make it an offense to "store" vehicles on the street

Which would make it a police matter. Here in Raleigh, the police first place a bright orange sticker on the back window of the car, warning the owner that the car will be towed in three (I think) days if it has not been moved.

The reaction of the towing company in this case implies the city was not involved. If it was, then contacting your local elected officials would be smart.
posted by mediareport at 5:24 PM on January 31, 2005

Your friend should call the police and see if they have any information about why your car was towed. They probably won't help much but why not invest the time? It may take several calls.

Leaving a broken down vehicle on the city streets is prohibited almost everywhere so this is likely the basis for the towing regardless of what the towing company goons are saying over the phone. Your friend should get the car out as soon as possible to avoid further storage fees.
posted by caddis at 6:02 PM on January 31, 2005

Um, if a "disabled" car sat out on my street for six months, I'd report it as derelict and have it towed out of my neighborhood. I'm no Texas law expert, but I'd bet it's something like that. Call me horrible, but we reported two cars in our neighborhood for sitting on the street, visibly "disabled" (read: Four flats) because it's dangerous to block the road permanently with your "Disabled" car and it makes our neighborhood look like a freaking trailier park.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:37 PM on January 31, 2005

In NYC, a car sitting that long would be considered derelict, plates or not, and the police (or sanitation) could have it towed.
posted by swift at 6:37 AM on February 1, 2005

"The towing and storage fees certainly are"

Only if he pays them to get it back, but if he couldn't be bothered to fix it in six months, why worry about it now?
posted by mischief at 9:44 AM on February 1, 2005

If you contact the police, why bother telling them where the car is? Tell them you had the car outside, then the next day, the car wasn't there. If the towing company registered it with the police, then the police will tell you why it was towed, and you can take the matter to court (plead not guilty to the charges).

If the car was sitting there for 6 months, it shouldn't be tough to get a couple of neighbors to sign affidavits that it wasn't on the grass. That should convince the judge, if he's fair. Note that if you get them to sign those they will probably tell you that the shitbox had better never grace their street again, so have a game plan in place. :-D

If the towing company did not register it, you call the police back a little while later saying you got a letter from such-and-such company that towed it and it appears they have it and you want something done about it. I am willing to bet it is an offence to tow a vehicle without permission and not register it having been towed with the police.

At this point I wouldn't bother phoning the towing company back -- they're obviously jerks.
posted by shepd at 11:59 AM on February 1, 2005

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