Can you please help me to free my car?
January 29, 2013 9:44 AM   Subscribe

Hello Everyone, So my car is currently impounded at a private tow lot in New York City as it has been for the past 5 weeks. I only received notification from the police department by mail in the past few days. When I called up to the tow lot this morning and spoke with the general manager, he informed me that my car has already racked up almost $1400 (!) in storage fees at $27/day. (The police document said only $17/day). He also said that he had sent a package to me on 1/26, but I still haven't received it yet.

When I mentioned to him that I would like to receive the package first and then talk to him, he completely shut down and told me that this phone conversation was the only opportunity I'd have to talk with him about negotiating to get the car out of the impound lot. He told me that he would block my phone number and would no longer speak to me about the matter. He even threatened to send the bill to collections and have my drivers license suspended.

I decided not to give in and ended the call without a resolution to the dispute.

The thing is that I've been hospitalized over the majority of the past month and the direct preceding cause was that I had a manic episode in which I abandoned my car in New York City and a stranger escorted me home by subway to my Mom's home. The day I was admitted to the hospital was the day the car was recovered by the police and towed to the private impound lot. I was never able to recall which stop along the subway line I abandoned the vehicle in NYC and so I wasn't able to get any help from the police in regards to this matter. Before receiving this mailed notification from the police, I went to DMV and surrendered my plates electronically, called up my insurance to let them know about what happened, and acquired another car.

I want to do what's right and fair. But somehow I just don't feel responsible for this bill. I feel like I've done pretty much everything that a reasonable person can be expected to do in this situation.

I did call the NYC police impounds multiple times, but they didn't have the car. And how many private tow lots are there in NYC? For all I knew the car was lost or stolen. Then 5 weeks and a $1400 bill later, I finally get a mailed notification that my car was found? The plates were on the car... in the age of telephones, email, and fax, all they had to do was call up DMV to get the mailing address. I can understand that there might be a huge backlog of work at the police department, but what about the private towing lot? What's their excuse? Did they just want an easy way to screw a person out of their hard earned money? Do they just figure that NYC lawyers want $400/hr and that Legal-Aid won't touch it because automobile cases are considered "luxuries" compared to housing cases?

So, I'm looking for advice about what to do next. I have 5 possible options as far as I can tell.

1. Pay the bill and be done with it.

2. Not claim the car and suffer the consequences.

3. Try to negotiate with the general manager again.

4. Take the private impound lot to small claims court.

5. Put the story up on Reddit and see if it gets any media traction. I think this is might be the kind of story that the internet loves and it could go viral. It might put some pressure on the general manager to do the right thing.

The way I'm feeling right now, I'm inclined to go with a combination of options 4 and 5. But I'd like to be able to keep my anonymity if I can.

Can anyone please offer me some good advice about how to best execute on these options while keeping my goal of remaining anonymous in mind? In the meantime, my car is still in the private lot incurring $27/day charges until it gets auctioned off next month. Please help me to free my car!
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Call an attorney.
posted by kavasa at 9:51 AM on January 29, 2013 [7 favorites]

It would be helpful to know how much your car is worth. Perhaps you could ask the mods to add that.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:53 AM on January 29, 2013

What are you hoping to achieve with any publicity you could get over this, anyway? You're going to be hard pressed to get much public traction over a story that's about "some guy" so unless you are willing to attach your name to this, I don't see how that avenue is available/does anything for you.
posted by deliciae at 9:54 AM on January 29, 2013

Did your insurance help you in any way to acquire that new car?
posted by halogen at 9:55 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have no idea how to get your car back, but if you think a thread on Reddit will put pressure on a guy who deals with people threatening him all day probably often with bodily harm, a guy who told you this was the only opportunity to deal with him or he will cut you off, a guy who is charging you $27/day and is going to get the proceeds of the auction, you are mistaken.

He knows the law, he knows his rights and he is dealing from a position of strength. (He has your car.) Having lived in Chicago, this is like dealing with Lincoln Towing. You may be able to negotiate a lower fee, but that is your only hope.

You could go to the auction and try to buy the car for less than the storage fees.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:55 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Before you hire a lawyer or get threatening in any way, I would probably drive to the lot with a copy of your medical records and any documentation from the police you have regarding where you've been and your efforts to find the car, and try to negotiate a lower fee. The guy may be used to dealing with angry people, but somewhere inside he is also a human being. Your story sounds authentic and reasonable to me. Hopefully it will to him, also, as long you stay calm and apologetic.
posted by something something at 10:06 AM on January 29, 2013

This sounds like a job for the NYC Public Advocate.
posted by *s at 10:09 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

You are probably SOL.

My car was stolen, recovered by the police, and towed to an impound lot. I was notified of this mere hours after the cops found my car, so my car was in impound for less than 24 hours. It still cost about $400 to get it back, and no amount of "But it was stolen! This isn't even my fault!" accomplished anything. They wouldn't even waive part of the fees, or bend the rules and take a check so that I could wait for my paycheck to clear direct deposit in a few days.

If you drive a relatively old car that is paid off and not worth much more than a few thousand dollars, I would probably write the whole thing off as "that time I did something kind of awful and now I don't have a car anymore". Especially since you live in New York City, where it's quite easy to get around without a car.

Or, if you have the money, I would just pay it and chalk it up to "that time I did something kind of awful and it was very expensive to fix."
posted by Sara C. at 10:16 AM on January 29, 2013 [11 favorites]

The tow lots are licensed by the city. Contact the correct department and notify them

- of the lot managers threat upon initial contact that he was going to block your phone number and not give you any chance to get your car back when you questioned why you were not notified sooner of the impound.

- that the price per day the manager quoted you over the phone is much higher than the price the NYPD notified you about in writing.

Similarly, contact the dmv. If you surrendered the plates, is the car still yours?

In LA, when I signed over the title of my (totaled) car to the tow agency - they owned the car and no more action on my part needed to be taken. When the storage fees mysteriously ended up in collections a year later (and the dmv dinged me for parking violations in northern california) I got the new owner of the tow lot in trouble with the city for selling my plates and sending my resolved bill to collections.

Yes. You need to do some foot work about this, but you likely have options.

How much is the car worth? That would figure into it for me.
posted by jbenben at 10:24 AM on January 29, 2013 [17 favorites]

but somewhere inside he is also a human being.

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess that you've never gotten your car towed.

OP, I suggest you lawyer up. If you are female, doubly so. (Based on my completely unsuccessful experience dealing with a tow here in Chicago...they broke my car and they didn't even cop to it. I should have dealt with them through legal avenues right from the get go.)
posted by phunniemee at 10:27 AM on January 29, 2013 [11 favorites]

Retain an attorney as soon as possible.

Do not correspond further with the impound lot owner and if you are going to correspond with the police limit such correspondence to requesting copies of reports, etc. This impound lot operator is an unreasonable would-be extortionist and you need to work with the type of lawyer that crushes this type of bullshit out of habit and personal inclination.

Smalls claims is not where you want to be and you do not want to prejudice this matter by taking it to the media or the internet without consulting an attorney. In fact, you should probably ask that this question be deleted.

Best of luck to you.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:29 AM on January 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Regarding the $17 vs $27 discrepancy in fees...a friend of mine recently had a car towed and noticed a discrepancy like that and it turned out one of the employees was pocketing the difference. So that kind of thing happens.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:37 AM on January 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

The guy may be used to dealing with angry people, but somewhere inside he is also a human being.

This is generally not true of "people" in the towing/impound business. Seriously. Reddit? Why would he care? His job is to make people hate him and pay him money. He'd probably relish the attention. You can ignore the "invoice"; it's unlikely he pushes it to collections and more unlikely still if the car goes to auction. If it does go to collections, that's a bit of a different story, but I'm guessing he flips the car if it's of any value, like they do, especially now that the plates are surrendered and such.
posted by disillusioned at 10:47 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

There have been several cases over the last decade here in San Francisco of tow companies doing stuff like towing cars illegally (without permission of or being directed by the owner of the property where the car was allegedly illegally parked) or charging fees that were not legal, or not sending impound notices within the legal timeframe. You might want to google the name of the tow company plus terms like "fraud" or "investigated" to get a sense of what you might really be dealing with.
posted by rtha at 10:52 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

The guy may be used to dealing with angry people, but somewhere inside he is also a human being.

Wrong. He is playing a role with you, correct, but playing that role is to his advantage. It's what he does for a living. He probably enjoys it. There is no appeal that you can make to his humanity, because you are not important to him in any way.

Reddit will not get that guy's city license reduced or reduce his business by one cent. The people who actually are responsible for giving the guy money don't even read reddit and won't be affected by a post there even in the unlikely situation it gets upvoted and makes the front page.

Lawyer. Up. Now. Period. End of story. If you do not, you will regret not lawyering up for the rest of your life, and the decision will haunt you through collections and future damages to no end. You don't need to deal with that kind of crap.
posted by SpecialK at 11:00 AM on January 29, 2013

Which borough of NYC?
posted by decathecting at 11:02 AM on January 29, 2013

Have you physically been to the tow lot yet?

When I dealt with this, there were tons of official city and police notices on all their policies, including rates, fees, penalties, and the relevant laws/policies in various situations posted up in the waiting room/cashier's office. Also, I was given TONS of official paperwork that itemized the various charges. This was helpful, though again not terribly encouraging since if they took pity on everybody with a sob story, getting your car towed would be free.

My understanding (from a different jurisdiction) is that, if you surrender the car for them to sell at auction, you will not owe them anything, and "collections" isn't a threat they can hold over you. If the impound lot person is telling you otherwise, you need to verify that, stat. And double check the proper procedure for surrendering the car to the impound lot. And correct anything that you may have done incorrectly based on prior assumption of what the laws/procedures ought to be.

One thing I've learned in situations like this is that "how the world ought to work" rarely lines up perfectly with how the world actually works, and moaning about how you didn't know because you assumed X, Y, or Z approach was correct rarely accomplishes much.

Right now your best bet is to find out what all the correct procedures and official policies are, and try your best to get a decent outcome based on a good understanding of same.
posted by Sara C. at 11:05 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a relative who drove a tow truck for a while. This is standard behavior for tow lot operators - they even screw the truck drivers out of their cut on the regular. It's a business that is all cash, no paper trail, no credit, and generally attracts the dregs of society. I say this only to warn you that any plan to shame, cajole, or beg him to behave like an actual human is unlikely to work. (And honestly, for anyone who has dealt with a tow lot your story isn't shocking/beyond-the-pale enough to reach viral internet mob justice level.) You may be able to bring a lawyer, court, or NYC regulators of some sort into it, but that's your only chance.
posted by misskaz at 12:23 PM on January 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

But somehow I just don't feel responsible for this bill.

You're responsible for the bill. Really. You are.

The City of New York has a summary of towing company laws on their web site which I recommend you read. The costs quoted to you by the tow operator seem to be in line with city regulations of private tow lots. Note that the old regulations had a maximum daily fee of $17/day, but that as of March 2012, the new maximum daily fee is $27/day, so the police may have inadvertently quoted the old rates on the letter they sent out.

A charge of this sort for a situation of this sort is fair. $1400 for a tow and 5 weeks of storage in NYC is not out of line. Somebody bought, registered, maintained, drove and filled the gas tank on the tow truck that removed your car. The person who runs the tow lot has rent or a mortgage to pay on their land, needs staff to pay to manage their operations, and pays taxes and regulatory fees to the city and state. It cost the city and a local businessperson real money to deal with and house your car, plain and simple. This is not extortion. There is no free parking. They did this and charged you this fee for one reason, regardless of circumstance: because you abandoned your car.

The fact that the police or the tow operator did not notify you immediately or provide you with information over the phone is not evidence of wrongdoing. There is a reasonable expectation that a car owner who abandons their vehicle for reasons outside of their control will generally be able to recall and visit the location the car was abandoned to get the number for the tow lot the car was towed to, or to recall the general location the car was abandoned and to contact the specific police precinct that deals with parking issues in that area. It is not a common scenario for an individual to not be able to recall even the general area where a car was lost, and so it would not at all be unreasonable for the police to only have these records on a precinct-by-precinct basis.

The plates were on the car... in the age of telephones, email, and fax, all they had to do was call up DMV to get the mailing address.

And that's clearly what they did. But they're not going to jump on doing that right away, because people who want their car back will generally return fairly quickly to the location the car was towed from and get information on recovering their vehicle, or people will generally recall the location of their car, and get in touch with the specific precinct their car was abandoned in, and so any attempt to make rapid contact (as opposed to the kind of "last ditch" contact you received) would be wasted time for a police department that likely has much better things to be doing with their time. Like it or not, the same argument holds for the tow operator.

I feel like I've done pretty much everything that a reasonable person can be expected to do in this situation.

A reasonable person would have been able to recall the general location they left their car.

"I was having a manic attack that required my admission to the hospital - that's why I can't remember where it was," you might say. Which is understandable and unfortunate. However, that's ultimately an admission that, at the time you abandoned your car, you weren't in a reasonable state. Here's the thing: if your medical condition is so severe that you might have trouble driving or otherwise dealing with your car, you perhaps shouldn't be driving. While I was shocked when reading at first that the tow lot operator might suggest they would have your license suspended, if you told them that the vehicle abandonment was due to a medical condition, the DMV does take reports from concerned citizens that a driver may be unfit to drive due to a medical condition, mental or physical, that can ultimately lead to license suspension. Using your medical condition as an excuse for this scenario can potentially be a severe liability to you. The only way to be certain of that is to speak with both a lawyer and a doctor for advice.

Put the story up on Reddit and see if it gets any media traction.

Reddit and the media love stories that target tow operations that are operating illegally. Many of us, including ourselves, have been towed legally and are embittered by the costs and hassle of dealing with the towing companies, so it is cathartic to see a towing company that is operating in violation of the law exposed and brought down. The thing is, nothing that you've described seems to be a clear violation of the law - and posting it to Reddit may well backfire.

Did they just want an easy way to screw a person out of their hard earned money?

No. There is a real cost to both the police and tow operators for towing, storing and other handling of abandoned cars. If you want your car back after a legal tow, you really are responsible for those costs, regardless of whether or not a medical issue was behind the tow.

If after reading this you truly, deeply believe that a law was violated in the NYPD or the towing firm's handling of this situation, or need advice as to how to best handle this, by all means, lawyer up. Otherwise, just pay the money and get your car.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 1:20 PM on January 29, 2013 [20 favorites]

Call the tow company and ask them if you can surrender the car to them, since you've already got a replacement, turned in the tags and stopped the insurance.

What did the impound lot do wrong? They were told to tow an illegally parked car, and store it. Which they did. All the rest of your tale, while sad, is beside the point. They have a right to recover the money that your misadventure cost them. (Towing and storage.)

As for Reddit and shame, you do realize that your actions lead to the towing of your car, right? Exactly what do you expect to have happened? Did you call the city tow yards looking for your car? Did you file a police report?

The details are a bit weird, and sometimes it costs money when weird happens. Chalk it up to experience, and perhaps get Lojack so that if it happens again, you can easily locate your car.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:10 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I like to watch "Parking Wars," which is a reality TV show about parking enforcement. On that show, they frequently follow around tow truck drivers and show what they do on a daily basis.

Trust me when I say this: they don't care *why* your car is in their lot. They might be nice people, they might love their kids and go to church and tip their wait staff in restaurants, but when it comes to towing, they follow the letter of the law and you have to pay.

And you know what? After watching that show, I actually agree with them. Their job might not be popular or nice, but it's necessary and worth doing. In every single incident I've seen on the show (which is obviously cherry-picked and heavily edited), the drivers have been compassionate people who are willing to work with someone in need. But as soon as someone starts accusing them of being thieves or swears at them, all bets are off.

So my suggestion would to calmly, nicely, politely bring your paperwork to the tow lot and ask for the owner or manager. Explain in a reasoned manner what happened and ask if they can work out some sort of deal.
posted by tacodave at 3:45 PM on January 29, 2013

To expand on tacodave's comment: Towing is a vital public service. Without it there would be no parking. You abandoned your car. Cars are, generally, valuable commodities so the police don't treat them like litter when they are abandoned (IE: they don't assume all illegally parked cars are intentionally abandoned and just feed them into a shredder because the vast majority of people want to recover their illegal parked automobiles). So towing and storage charges are incurred and it's only fair that the owner of the property pay for these charges rather than tax payers.

There is a certain amount of punitive motivation too. Fewer people illegally park cars because the hassle and charges to get the car back are more expensive than just parking legally.

PS: Advice for future readers who have had their car towed but they don't know by who. Simply phone every licenced company in town and inquire whether they have your car (your city may be able to provide a list of licenced companies). You will be responsible for towing and storage costs and the faster you can claim your car the less you'll end up owing.
posted by Mitheral at 7:04 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Let me expand on Sara C's comment.

In NYC, in particular, it does not matter what the situation is. Once your car is towed, even if it is for a BS reason, you are still liable for the towing storage.

Case in point. I had my car towed once /while I was deployed/. Possibly the best reason you could ever have to not be responsible for the damages. The city had even acted illegally, counter to several laws for protections for servicemembers. I got a lawyer who provided me all the resources I would need to have everything dismissed. I went in front of a judge who then removed every NYC fee they had the ability to remove.

I still had to pay the towing lot for the storage.

You will not get traction in the media, because this is a common story which is not unusual in any way, unless you are willing to bring your medical condition into it, which, as I EAT TAPAS notes, may actually get your license eventually removed.

Let me also give you a pro tip from someone who has been there: every day you fight it, that's another day that the tow lot is adding on to the bill that you will eventually need to settle if you want to get your car.

It's possible that someone could sue the city over this practice, because it is inherently against various principles and even some larger laws, but if they did, it would be an enormous lawsuit, and cost an arm and a leg for your lawyer. I'd like to see the principle of charging towing fees even if the car should not have been towed ended, (like, holy shit! Paying to get back your own stolen car,wtf!) but I just don't think this is the hill you should die on.

Figure out if your car is worth the amount to you, now. If it's not, write it off. If it is, pay the money. Other routes lead only to tears.
posted by corb at 5:30 AM on January 30, 2013

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