Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A "Citizen Uprising" Over Towing In Knoxville, Tennessee? photo

Citizens in Knoxville, Tennessee appear close to an uprising over towing issues. It's pretty ugly...

Admittedly, I have only been blogging about these issues for a few months, but I don't ever expect to ever see anything like the controversy raging in Knoxville. Citizens are literally talking about cutting off metal "boots" with a blowtorch...

First, let me make one thing clear. I am a moderate. I study public administration at a Masters level at the Humphrey Institute. So I'm not into a whole lot of wild-eyed talk about rising up in open rebellion against the oppressors, who happen to be one's own government. My response would be to put forward reformist measures (like technology which could inform a citizen of an impending tow) rather than talking about organizing an uprising.

(For the record, even the Founding Fathers tried a bunch of moderate reformist measures before turning to other options, so even the Founding Fathers didn't act like a bunch of hotheads until all other options were exhausted)

Therefore, I do not endorse cutting a metal boot off your vehicle, nor do I offer an opinion on the creative legal reasoning some have put forward in that regard, except to note "creative" and "legal reasoning" are not usually a winning combination.

What I do know, however, is citizens in Knoxville, Tennessee appear to have a very low tolerance for what they perceive as official abuse, and there is quite a discussion taking place about booting and towing as a form of official abuse. I first became aware of this amazing, colorful discussion on the comment stream of this article about possible limits on booting fees.

Here is the article, reproduced in full under the "fair comment and criticism" doctrine of the First Amendment, with my (fair) comment and criticism inserted. (Yeah, OK, I guess I do actually engage in some creative legal reasoning myself, but I'm on firm ground especially when I don't actively TAKE UP ARMS like some rather hotheaded individuals are literally talking about.

The article itself is fairly bland. But, oh, what people were saying in the comments section! Blowtorches! Constitution! The McMinn County War!

And much more!

Boots could get a cap

Parking firms say $40 limit would wreck business

By Hayes Hickman

Friday, May 23, 2008

Private companies that put boots on cars in Knoxville could be put out of business if the city enacts a proposed $40 cap on their charges, owners told Knoxville Wrecker Commission members Thursday.

The firms now charge vehicle owners more than twice that much if they want to free their cars from a boot, which act as a sort of handcuff when it's attached to the wheel, rendering a vehicle inoperable.

(Arguably worse than a handcuff. When people are first handcuffed, they will still get a trial, some legal process. When it comes to your car, though, it's "judge, jury and executioner" at the hands of some tow truck driver)

Boots are growing in popularity locally and can offer a "friendly alternative" to traditional towing for private pay parking lots and apartment complexes that contract with the firms, an attorney for the businesses argued.

But "booting requires at least two trips," said attorney Mike McGovern, who represents three firms working in Knoxville. "It's very labor-intensive, unlike towing, where you just get the car and go."

("Labor intensive?" That's just crazy talk. I'm sure if you go around towing cars all day and driving off, having to make TWO TRIPS seems really "labor intensive." However, considering the labor involved versus the revenue shook just can't call it "labor intensive.")

Among his clients, current rates run between $75 and $100.

Doug Stagner, owner of Rutherford County-based United Parking Enforcement Service, said he already pays his employees - who work as independent contractors - $40 per booted vehicle. His charge to a vehicle's owner is $95 cash or $100 to pay by credit card.

"There's not that much profit," said Stagner, who's been in business locally for about three years. "You will put us out of business at $40."

When asked what the cap should be, McGovern said, "They think they're charging a reasonable rate now."

City Council members booted the proposed price capping ordinance back to the wrecker commission after hearing from McGovern at the May 6 council meeting, where he offered a list of rates allowed in other cities nationally, including $300 in Milwaukee.

(Booted it back to the commission? OK, somebody needs to take a stand against puns like that, and...well, it's not going to be me)

City Attorney Alyson Eberting, however, said McGovern's list was flawed - many upper-end prices are in cities that don't regulate the practice. In those that do, the maximum allowed charges for booting by a private company typically are much lower, she said.

(The attorney for the tow truck company padded the numbers? Shocking)

Using that strictly apples-to-apples comparison, she offered her own list in which the prices ranged from $25, as set by state law in Virginia, to $100 in Chicago.

Knoxville is ahead of the curve in its attempt to regulate the practice, while other Tennessee cities now are waiting to see what Knoxville enacts, she said.

"We've talked about the rates before; it's come up at previous meetings," Eberting said. "And that's what we based the $40 on that we sent to council the first time."

Eberting, who recommended against any change to the proposed $40 cap, also offered the wrecker commission members a revised draft ordinance that was expanded to include requiring such companies to first obtain a permit from the Knoxville Police Department, pay a $25 annual permit fee and carry at least $25,000 in liability insurance coverage.

Feeling no closer to a compromise after the meeting passed the two-hour mark, the wrecker commission decided to continue the discussion at its next meeting, tentatively set for July 7.
Until an ordinance is approved by City Council, local booters remain free to charge what they like.


(Sure, let them run loose a couple months. It's not like they've got anybody UPSET)

Here are some examples from the comments posted to the article and, once again, I am not endorsing any of this. But I see it as very relevant to show what the mood is among the citizens in Knoxville, Tennessee.

First, check out this website all about "tow crime" in Knoxville.

The author of the site claims "this is the website that forced City of Knoxville Municipal Corporation to fire all its car-thieving towing contractors and file a class action against them. An amazing claim, yes, but I found evidence to back the claim up in a website about class action lawsuits, and I'll be posting something about that.

Second, check out the link to this lawsuit against towing contractors in Knoxville, which reads more like a novel than a legal brief. This is inevitably what happens when you represent yourself. It all seems so important and relevant, the historical record so near and dear. All the same...the lawsuit, as colorful all-too-personal as it was, apparently worked in the way it was intended by the plaintiff, and nothing succeeds like success.

However, this revised lawsuit reads like a much more professional document.

Here is another website which explores the fascinating philosophical boundary between car theft and non-consent towing, and when does one become the other? These websites appear to all be part of the same grassroots anti-towing and booting movement in Knoxville, and I'm sure they're connected quite intimately.

As part of this discussion, somebody contributed a link which explains, in detail, how to remove a "Denver Boot" from your vehicle. As the document puts it so colorfully, "It's big. It's ugly. It looks invincible. But the Denver Boot is really a marshmallow."

More will follow on the situation in Knoxville, which appears to be developing and changing moment-by-moment. I intend to contact some of the folks in Knoxville and collect a few of the horror stories from the blog.

But I emphasize, again. I am a moderate. Right now, I am just trying to understand the complicated and (I suspect) highly relevant situation in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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