A combination of new laws effective with the New Year and an ongoing campaign by the Santa Monica City Attorney’s office have reined in “the hook” and restricted some towing companies whose operations tarnished the tow industry.
On January 30, 2007, Classic Towing (also known as Hook It Up Towing) and its owners Jesse and Blanca Lopez entered into plea agreements with the City in proceedings in which Classic had been charged with attempted extortion, towing a vehicle without written authorization and operating without a business license. The City had been pursuing Classic and its owners for several years in multiple prosecutions and administrative actions.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, which is binding on the principals as well as the company itself, Classic will be permanently shut down and required to sell off its trucks and will pay $5,000 ($2,500 for restitution of victims and $2,500 to the City’s Consumer Protection Fund).
In another case, Williams Tow and Impound and its owner William Amaya pleaded no contest on December 13, 2006 to charges of towing vehicles without the written authorization of the property owner and refusing to accept credit card payments. Williams Tow and its principals are prohibited from performing any towing in Santa Monica for a period of one year and must pay a $1,000 fine to the Consumer Protection Fund (the victims were reimbursed during the investigation). Williams must also give instruction to its employees during the suspension period.
Gary Rhoades, the attorney who handled the cases for Santa Monica, said that comprehensive probation packages are a good way to curb illegal practices. “Probation terms that tightly control towing practices and include training of drivers and dispatchers should go a long way in improving Williams Tow’s compliance,” said Rhoades. Comparing the result in the Classic Towing case, he added, “Seeking the closure of a towing outfit is our very last resort, but if an owner sees the hook on the back of his truck as a license to steal, then he will have to be shut down.”
A third case remains pending against Competition Tow Service and its owner Peter Boktor for two towing infractions, including refusing to accept payment by credit card and charging an excessive rate, as well as one misdemeanor for taking a vehicle without the consent of the property owner. The case is in pretrial proceedings. The three prosecutions, along with new collaboration among law enforcement groups, are part of the City’s Consumer Protection Unit’s continuing efforts to curb illegal towing.
The recent cases have been notable for the heightened collaboration between several law enforcement groups, including the Santa Monica Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, the City Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, Santa Monica’s Revenue Division and the Better Business Bureau.
Santa Monica Police Officer Mike Rosenberg first detected the patterns of unlawful towing practices. “With Officer Rosenberg’s work, we saw that there were unusually high numbers of complaints and allegations against these three companies,” said Rhoades. Once city prosecutors started filing charges, the above law enforcements groups and Rosenberg made investigation of these patterns a priority. In the Classic Towing case, the city got an early court order barring Classic from doing any towing in Santa Monica pending the jury trial. But in what the City Attorney’s office calls “a first of its kind undercover test,” Consumer Protection Specialist Paula Rockenstein of the City Attorney’s Office found that Classic was allegedly violating the court order and operating without a business license. New criminal counts based on the violations were immediately filed.
The City of Los Angeles, whose jurisdiction includes the neighboring communities of Venice, Brentwood, Mar Vista and West Los Angeles, has announced that its Los Angeles Police Commission Investigation Division will license and regulate tow companies and their drivers under permits to be enforced beginning in April. “While the majority of tow operators are honest business owners, some unscrupulous tow operators were functioning virtually unchecked [before the new regulations],” said the LA Police Commission. “Often, tow operators would ‘lie in wait’ on private parking lots and ignore California Vehicle Code regulations.”
Under state law, the following practices are now crimes:
Towing a vehicle without written authorization from a property owner for that particular tow. (Example: In the Williams Tow case, the prosecution alleged that the tow company towed a victim’s car from a Blockbuster parking lot before business hours, even though Blockbuster had not authorized the tow.) The only exception to this rule occurs when the vehicle is blocking another vehicle or interfering with an exit or entrance.
Towing a vehicle after its owner returns to the vehicle.
Charging rates in excess of those approved by the California Highway Patrol.
Failing to accept a credit card for payment of towing services.
Towing a vehicle before a one-hour grace period expires.
Most of the towing crimes that used to be infractions are now misdemeanors. Also, the towing laws were amended so that they now regulate tows from private properties such as condominium associations.
Any Santa Monica consumers who believe they are victims of illegal tows should contact the City Attorney’s office at 310.458.8336.