Every so often, I cross paths with someone who causes me to say, "Boy, I'm glad I don't have to do that for a living." I have just
added the following job description to the list: Driving a tow truck that impounds cars that are sort of illegally parked.
This afternoon, Carolyn and I went to a surprise birthday party up in Laurel Canyon and, so that the birthday boy wouldn't spot and
recognize my car on the way in, I parked off on a side street. It turned out this is a street that looks like a normal public road but some of
the residents there have managed to have it classified as private. There's a sign that says, in effect, "No parking here or we'll have you
towed," but it's not a city sign. It looks more like it was put up by a realtor, and it's about the size of a business card (I'm exaggerating)
and half-covered with tree limbs (I'm not exaggerating). Anyway, I didn't notice it and I parked in what looked like a perfectly normal place
An hour or so later, the host of the party announced that towing was going on outside. We all ran out and my green Lexus (with
the MAGNOR license plate) was nowhere to be seen. A tow truck was removing another auto from near where mine had
been parked. I asked him where mine was and he handed me the business card of his company, which was way out in Van Nuys and told me I could
pick mine up tomorrow between 9 and 5, and it would cost $250 — cash, no checks. Well, you can just imagine how delighted I was with
I did a fast replotting of my life: Carolyn and I would have to take a cab home tonight, then I'd have to take a cab out to Van Nuys in
the morning, plus pay the fee. So we're looking at maybe $325 plus at least two hours tomorrow, plus the loss of transportation this
evening. Even if I could get a ride home or to Van Nuys tomorrow, the punishment seemed disproportionate to the crime. Given the
concealment of what wasn't even a city "no parking" sign, I could make a case that we were entrapped or at least not given fair warning. But
let's put that aside and say I was culpable. Does this penalty make sense, either monetarily or in terms of aggravation and time? We were not
blocking driveways or access. I don't think our cars were even occupying spaces that the homeowners along that street might have needed, since
it didn't say "parking by permit only" or anything. I think the people there simply don't want anyone parking on "their" street.
Now, there are "no parking" signs (real ones) on my street — much more clearly displayed, plus they actually look like "no
parking" signs. They apply to specific hours when the street cleaning equipment needs to burnish the gutters and at other times, they limit
parking to two hours on one side of the street and to folks with permits on the other. This is because otherwise, people who work in nearby
businesses would occupy all the spaces all day, and there would be no place for our visitors, cleaning women, gardeners, etc. to park. If
you violate these restrictions, the fine is around $40 and they leave your car right where it is. No towing. That seems fair to me...or
at least, fairer than $250 and an impound.
In some cases — like, if you come running out while the tow guy's still there as we did today in Studio City, there's a lesser
(but still outrageous) alternative. As we were all fuming and fretting that our cars had been towed away, the driver returned and informed us
that he hadn't yet taken them to Van Nuys. Our cars were "impounded" down the street and he'd "do us a favor" and release them then and there
for only $125 in cash.
You can smell the scam. First, they tell you that it'll cost more than twice that and that it'll be a huge pain in the ass.
Then, after putting you in despair, they act like they're doing you a favor by "only" charging you half. It's extortion but you realize, as we
all realized, that fighting is going to cost a lot more time and money, and there's probably some statute that makes it perfectly legal. I
think that's what bothered me the most about it — knowing that contesting it can only be aggravating and time-consuming and a probable
dead-end. The way to minimize damage is, alas, to fork over the cash and accept it.
The tow truck driver kept saying, "Hey, I'm sorry about this, but they [meaning some nearby homeowner] made the call." And he was
right on one level, I guess. To the extent there's a master villain in this episode, it's the folks who got their street posted like that and
who called in the tow truck, and I'd also fault whatever laws and regulations allow this. (In case I haven't made it clear, this is a
residential area, nowhere near business. On my street, those who park illegally are usually folks working in or patronizing businesses a few
blocks away. On the street where today's towing was done, anyone parked is probably visiting a neighbor.)
The tow truck operators sure have a lovely racket here. A normal transport from there to Van Nuys would be around $75 and they
probably make a decent profit doing that. In this situation, they charge $250 to tow you, or $125 if they don't. And let's remember:
These guys aren't the police. Your car has been seized by some guy without a badge and I doubt any or all of the money you give goes to the
city. In this case, they also ruined a party, embarrassed the host and risked causing other damage. There were two prominent heart
specialists at the gathering and while they didn't get towed, what would happen if they got beeped that they were needed in surgery, ran out and
found that their cars were en route to Van Nuys? What if someone was actually stranded in a strange neighborhood with no way to get home?
We can all imagine all sorts of unpleasant scenarios and I'm sure that most of them have happened. It's a real sleazy way to earn money.
The driver kept saying, "Hey, sorry, but it's my job" and I've never believed that's an excuse for anything. There are legal ways
to earn money that people ought to be ashamed to do and that probably should not be legal. I sure hope I never sink that low to make a
buck. I came close with one show that I wrote for ABC but thank God, it wasn't quite that bad.
Well, I'm finding out more about the little towing scam that was pulled on me
yesterday afternoon. I just had a nice chat with a gent who works for the Van Nuys Police who among other things, told me that this
particular towing company was one that has had a long, long list of complaints against it. An Internet search I just did turned up some news
stories that bear this out. One in particular said that the company was being sued because its drivers were operating under "blanket
authorizations." That is, they would obtain the okay of a property owner to tow any car they found parked on that owner's private
property. As I read Section 22658 of the Vehicle Code (thank
you, Internet), you can't do this. A towing must be done in response to a specific complaint from the property owner. Here's the relevant
section of the Vehicle Code...
A towing company shall not remove or commence the removal of a vehicle from private property without first obtaining written
authorization from the property owner or lessee, or an employee or agent thereof, who shall be present at the time of removal. General
authorization to remove or commence removal of a vehicle at the towing company's discretion shall not be delegated to a towing company or its
affiliates except in the case of a vehicle unlawfully parked within 15 feet of a fire hydrant or in a fire lane, or in a manner which interferes with
any entrance to, or exit from, the private property.
As far as I could see, no property owner was "present at the time of removal," and I'm skeptical that there was any written
complaint. In fact, it's possible there was no specific verbal one, either. Perhaps the tow truck driver just went out cruising areas
where his firm had these blanket authorizations, saw our cars there and started towing.
Here's another little squib of interest from Section 22658...
A charge for towing or storage, or both, of a vehicle under this section is excessive if the charge is greater than that which would
have been charged for towing or storage, or both, made at the request of a law enforcement agency under an agreement between the law enforcement
agency and a towing company in the city or county in which is located the private property from which the vehicle was, or was attempted to be,
In other words, a private towing company impounding a car cannot charge more than the police towing service would charge.
According to the guy I spoke to on the phone (who works for the police towing division), there are two charges involved here — towing and
storage. Towing is $110, regardless of distance. Once the vehicle's wheels leave the street, it's considered "towed," whether it gets
moved twenty miles or twenty inches. Then there's storage, which is $27.50 per day or for any portion of a day. So if my car had been
towed all the way into the yard in Van Nuys and I picked it up the next morning, the company would not be legally allowed to charge more than
If you'll recall, the driver said it would be $250 and then he suggested that if we gave him $125, he wouldn't tow it in to Van
Nuys. So he lied to us about the higher fee to get us to cough up the cash there,
rather than force him to make several trips to tow cars to Van Nuys. We were in a wealthy neighborhood and he was towing expensive autos, so he
probably figured we'd have the money.
This is all quite interesting. The gent at the Van Nuys P.D.
gave me some phone numbers I'll be calling. I'll let you know what
Two weeks ago, I reported on an ugly encounter that a group of us had with a tow truck driver. As I noted at the time, a lot of this seemed to be in violation of the vehicle code and the whole thing smelled of extortion. I
have since spent some time talking to law enforcement officials — all of whom, by the way, were uncommonly polite and helpful and difficult to
get on the phone because they have to juggle so many cases at once. I think I now have a better understanding of the situation...and why these
guys have a racket that is difficult to combat. The bottom line is that, yes, the driver in this case probably violated the law but that
there's nothing the law can do. Prior to 1995, they could. One of the detectives to whom I spoke said, "If this had happened in '94, we'd
be able to go out and arrest him for car theft and several other things, except that back in '94, he probably wouldn't have tried it."
What happened in 1995 was a massive deregulation of the towing industry as part of the Federal Aviation Administration Act of
'95. The main part of the act, of course, had to do with airlines but they tossed in interstate trucking as part of the bargain and somehow,
thanks to the fine lobbying efforts of the tow truck industry, towing snuck in there. The California state laws are still on the books and
going by them, what our friend the tow truck driver did is probably illegal. But what has happened is that the courts have ruled that the
federal law supersedes the state laws, and the federal law changes the offense to a civil matter. In other words, the state cannot prosecute
the guy but I can sue him. If I sue him, the most I can collect is quadruple damages...in other words, $600.
To win, I would have to show he had violated the California Vehicle Code, which I believe he did. But proving that would not be
easy. There is no doubt in my mind that the guy lied to us, claiming the cost would be $250 when in fact, that amount is still regulated and it
would have been more like $137. But doubtlessly, that would come down to his word against mine and anyway, it's not a clear violation of the
law to lie. More relevant is the fact that the posted sign was apparently not the right size or wording...but one of the detectives with whom I
spoke cautioned me that judges sometimes regard that as a technicality, and one that represents wrongdoing by the property owner and not the tow
truck. It is not something you want to hang your whole case upon.
The biggest violation I could prove might be if, as I suspect, the tow truck driver could not show that a property owner (i.e., someone
with legal responsibility for the private road) had directly authorized the tow. My suspicion is that no one phoned; that this driver merely
cruises areas where he knows he may find cars parked in apparent violation of posted signs. When he finds them, he starts towing...and of
course, he hopes he can get people to pay him $125 to not impound their cars, rather than the higher fee if he does. There are three
possible scenarios here...
One is if he had no authorization whatsoever from the property owner. Regulation or deregulation, that would be a pretty clear
violation of the law, and would likely land the guy in jail, above and beyond any monetary damages to those he had fleeced. As one detective
told me, this is possible but not probable.
The second would be if he had received a specific call from the property owner to remove my car. According to the California
Vehicle Code, this has to be done in writing and the property owner must be present...but the deregulation largely gutted those conditions.
Now, there merely has to be a specific call. The problem with pursuing this possible violation is that until I got the guy into court, I would
have no way of knowing if any of the homeowners on the street had called him. He doesn't have to give me that information.
The third scenario is the most likely. A lot of the companies that tow cars off private property are now operating under what
they call "blanket authorizations," meaning that the property owner has authorized them to patrol the area and remove any vehicle they find parked in
violation of the posted signs without a specific call. This is contrary to the Vehicle Code but several towing companies are still fighting in
court, on matters ongoing, claiming that that provision has been voided by the federal deregulation and that blanket authorizations are now
legal. In fact, the tow truck company for which our friend works is one of the main firms fighting for that interpretation.
If the guy was operating under a blanket authorization, it probably would not come down to discussing the legality of that. More
likely, the driver would claim he had a specific complaint from a homeowner on that street. He would have to give the name to the judge and
then someone would check to see if that person would back that up. The judge might put the burden on me to go up there and knock on that
person's door and say to them, "Listen, I was parked out front where I know you don't want anyone to park, but would you sign an affidavit that you
didn't call the tow truck to remove my car?" Or the judge might have some officer of the court check. Either way, the named homeowner
would probably back the tow truck driver and I'd have to go back to court a second time and pin my hopes on the technicality of the sign being
So it sounds like a tough case to win. One person I spoke to said my best chance would be if the tow truck driver just defaulted
and paid the $600, rather than go to court. Considering how much loot he's probably clearing when he's out towing cars, that sounds financially
plausible, but I'm also told most tow truck companies do fight such matters. They thrive on the idea that you'll decide it's not worth your trouble
to go to court. They like that even if I win, I'm going to go back and tell the other folks who got towed that it was a huge hassle
and that it took a lot of my time, so they have to make sure it's a huge hassle that takes a lot of my time. The last time I went to court
— back when a speeding motorist ran into my house — I had to get up very early and sit in court most of a day before I learned that the
case was being postponed to another day. The wheels of justice don't just grind slowly; sometimes, they turn like the cap on an old tube of Krazy Glue.
One of the gents I talked to said, approximately, "The problem is the deregulation. It allowed hundreds and hundreds of new
towing companies to get into the business. The theory was that more competition would drive down the rates but in fact, the rates have all gone
up, not down. What has gone down are the ethics of the business and our ability to police them. I cannot go out and arrest them like we
used to do. You have to decide you want to go to court, and you have a much harder time of it than you should." Another detective said,
"It might not have been so bad if they'd really deregulated...if a judge could fine them ten thousand dollars or lift their licenses. But they
kept the part of the regulation that limits the punishment to quadruple damages."
Quadruple damages don't equal a lot of justice. I'll bet not one in ten people who are subjected to this even bother to look into
their rights, let alone go to court. One detective said less than one in a hundred take any action at all, and he also confirmed my hunch that
the truckers prey primarily on expensive cars in upscale neighborhoods. That increases the chance that (a) someone is going to come up
with $125 cash to reclaim their car and (b) the victim is going to decide it's not worth his time to go to court. It sounds to me like
the odds are wildly in the towing company's favor: Tow 100 cars @ $125 each. An average of one will drag you to court and you may have to pay
$600. Total profit: $11,900.
As you may have guessed by now, I don't think I'm going to be the one in a hundred who goes before His Honor. I have been toying
with the notion of using contacts I have with newspapers and magazines to see if I can write up this tale for a larger audience than the one that
visits this website. That might do a lot more good, though I may not even do that. It might cut into my new occupation as a crooked tow