I recently visited some friends for dinner at their new apartment in a large 300 unit complex. After dinner, when I got back to where I had parked I saw the parking space was empty. After a feeling of utter dread and panic, I frantically searched around thinking that perhaps I was mistaken about where I had parked; but after a couple of rounds of searching the parking lot I knew that my car was gone. Initially I thought my car had been stolen, but then noticed a small and obscure towing sign with a company contact number. Given it was a decent neighborhood and I was not in a resident parking space, I slowly realized the car was most likely towed rather than stolen.
So I called the towing company and sure enough they had my car. I tried to tell the company that I had legally parked, but could not negotiate with them since they said they were just working on the apartment management group’s instructions. Also, typical of most towing companies who rarely need to worry about customer service or satisfaction, they were rude and offered little in terms of recourse to resolve my situation. Given I needed the car for getting to work the next day, I went with one of friends to pick it up. After paying the $150 towing charge I was able to retrieve my car, but suffice to say I was not a happy camper.
I had definitely parked in a spot that was not reserved with no signs indicating visitor parking was not allowed; and my friends were pretty sure that when they signed the lease there were no parking restriction in non-reserved visitor spaces. In fact they had parked, without tags or permits, in similar spots to mine over the last 2 weeks and never got towed. So after venting for a few days, I decided to look at my state’s towing laws, what rights I had and what people in situations similar to mine had done. Here’s a summary of what I found and things to keep in mind.
Check you did not violate parking rules : The first thing to check is that you parked in a legal spot. Make sure that there is no signage at the entry to the parking lot or in nearby spots that indicates you could be illegally parked. If possible check the lease of the person who is renting the apartment, which should state parking restrictions and visitor parking in the apartment complex. Finally call the apartment managers to log a complaint and ask them why your car was towed. They will likely be more helpful than the towing company, particular since they have to care about their tenant’s rights (like having visitors be able to park when they come over).
Proof of the towing: Get proof that the towing company followed state procedures regarding the towing. This requires that they take a picture of the car in the “illegal” spot and notify the local police department to ensure the car is not classified as stolen. Getting the pictures of the towing from the towing company is not easy and you will likely have to go back a couple of days later to get the digital photos. Expect a charge for this.
Call the local police department: You should also call the local police department where the towing company is located to check it they actually reported your car as towed. The police though cannot force the towing company to give back your car and can only come out to keep the peace if discussions get heated and act as a witness. However, don’t expect the police department to be much of an ally since this is a pretty minor item in their eyes and they have much more of a relationship with the towing company operators, than with you.
Don’t be a hero: The number one mistake victims make is to take matters into their own hands by taking aggressive actions with the towing company. By doing that you make the other person (i.e the towing company) the victim and you become the criminal. If you go to jail the tow company wins. So work with or through the police to make the initial complaint. Then follow local procedures to take the matter further if discussions with the towing company and apartment managers cannot resolve the dispute.
Predatory towing is real: Once a towing company has a vehicle, they impound the vehicle and refuse to release it until a desired fee is paid. If the fee is not paid, the vehicle is not released, and storage fees begin to accrue until the surpass the value of the vehicle. At some point, the towing company will auction off the vehicle and keep their towing and storage fees. The typical vehicle owner does not understand the laws enacted to protect them, do not have sufficient vacation time to try to enforce them in local courts against an experienced attorney representing the towing company, and can’t get the local police to help protect their rights because the police are not familiar with this area of law.
Legal rights and local laws: Most states have towing laws that are supported by the auto insurance industry as well as consumer and government groups to prevent increased insurance costs due to negligent towing by towing operators, protect vehicle owners from abusive practices, and to help regulate towing companies. Most local governments have also passed predatory towing laws to help consumers. All they need to to do is spend some time searching for them.
For example in California, under vehicle code 22658 a tow company can not tow your car from private property with 15 or more units based on a blanket authorization order from the landlord or association. In other words a towing company operating in the State of California can’t just drive through a complex looking for cars to tow in the middle of the night. Someone has to call them. The person who calls them must be present at the time the car is being towed. They must tell the tow company why the car is being towed. They have to point out the car being towed. The have to sign the authorization papers at the time the car is being towed and give their complete name, address and phone number.
Many other states have also passed similar laws to prevent abuses by towing operators during towing from private property. This includes maximum fees ranging from $125 to $250 and requiring towing operators to release vehicles about to be towed if the owner arrives. Apartment managers must also display proper signage at entrances are around parking areas giving certain notifying information to vehicle owners about parking restrictions, maximum allowed fees for towing and storage. A little known rule, which most people don’t realize and towing companies ignore is that no towing fee may be charged for the first 24 hours of storage. Further, towing companies must accept credit card payments and not restrict payments to cash only.
Next steps: Unfortunately I needed my car back and already paid the towing fine. But with an understanding of the law, I am going to go after the towing company and apartment complex managers to try and get my money back. Remember knowledge is power. If your car is towed you need to know the law to take the appropriate course of action.
I’ll let you know what happens with my efforts to get the $150 of towing charges back. Feel free to leave a comment or any advice if you have had a similar experience.
This article was updated on October 26