Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Carrboro Towing Scandal May Be Resolved

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First of all, it seems the folks who write about Carrboro noticed me noticing Carrboro. Yes, my blog got blogged about. Click here for the link unless...

...you're afraid to disappear into a self-referential black hole in the blogosphere, a warp in the fabric of reality, as blogs blog about blogs blogging about blogs. Yup, one could just wink out of existence. There are historical reports.

Mark Schulz of the Charlottesville Observer called my blogging "even handed," which was nice, but more importantly he provided further info about the developing situation in Carrboro. First of all, it appears true a man did indeed put his baby into a car to keep it towed, at least according to Schultz. Secondly, an emergency Board of Aldermen Meeting has been scheduled to talk about the town's towing rules.

Another reporter's blog provided more detail about the encounter Mayor Mark Chilton had with angry residents of Abbey Court. Unable to stop Abbey Court from enforcing its towing policy, he urged residents to take a hard look at their apartments and--if anything was not up to code--to file complaints with the city. According to the reporter, at least one formal complaint has been filed, with the Mayor urging his city officials to act quickly on such complaints.

However, in the comments section one ANONYMOUS AND COMPLETELY UNVERIFIED PERSON said the media had distorted the facts and overblown the "damaged car crackdown" aspect of the events. Of course, being anonymous the comment could have easily been written by, oh gee, management from the apartment complex in question?

The blogger asked, rhetorically, whether there weren't more important things requiring the Mayor's attention. I think when a surly crowd of 100 people gather, and an infant is used as a pawn in a physical encounter between people and a tow truck, that is EXACTLY the kind of thing a mayor should stick his nose into.

Bravo, Mayor Chilton.

As a result of a people's revolt which sounded truly revolutionary, the apartment complex in question has relaxed its "conspicuous damage" parking rules and will "reassess" any situation where somebody was denied a permit according to more blogging by Mark Schultz. Of course, residents will have to "revisit the office" at Abbey Court. (Probably so management can figure out who the trouble makers are)

This retreat and(alleged) reform shows something wasn't right in the first place.

If only all abusive and predatory towing situations could be solved so easily by a hands-on mayor who cares about all the residents of his city, including the poor.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Empty Booting Threats In Minneapolis

Photo by John Hoff

Not so long ago, Minneapolis "banned the boot" except in very small parking lots, and what a great day that was.

However, it appears nobody told the booters to change their signs. This sign is in the infamous McDonalds parking lot in Dinkytown, where so much overly-zealous booting took place prior to the much needed reform. This is a very large parking lot, so it doesn't fall into the class of lots where booting is still allowed.

Call me a purist, but I don't think you should be allowed to post a sign threatening to do something you can't legally do. (Obvious joke signs being an obvious exception) And no, the "& or" doesn't make it acceptable.

Consider: "I'm going to arrest and/or beat you within an inch of your life."

(Do not click "Read More")

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Rips The Lid Off An Ugly Towing Scandal

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A complex controversy has emerged in St. Louis, Missouri, which has already caused the resignation of a police chief...

An excellent article by three reporters at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch lays out the sordid details, including these choice nuggets:

1.) The impound lot of S&H parking looks like "a prison for cars," with razor wire topped fences and--good grief!--guards in elevated towers standing watch. A photo taken by Dawn Majors of the Post-Dispatch shows a sign with a snarling German Shepherd, warning "GUARD DOG ON DUTY."

2.) (Former) Police Chief Joe Mokwa has resigned in the wake of the scandal and questions about his creditability but not to worry! He walked away with a $100k severance package.

3.) The chief's daughter and "an unknown number of officers" received the free use of impounded vehicles for years. This is not an allegation, but an admission of the Police Board.

4.) The city's towing director, Denney Hunter, wrote a memo (obtained by the newspaper) directing the choice cars to be towed to S&H Parking--which is at the center of the scandal--and the crappy, inoperable cars went to the city tow lot.

5.) This worked out nicely, since S&H was allowed to keep vehicles unclaimed after 30 days once they "attempted to contact" the vehicle's owner. Yeah, I bet those were some really listless attempts. How did S&H work out this sweetheart deal? A former police officer named Gregory Shepherd, who came loaded with experience and a heroic reputation for drug busts, spent the last two years of his cop career dealing with his department's Asset Forfeiture unit.

This unit dealt with cars seized as part of a crime. When he left the department, Shepherd brought his experience, insight and contacts to S&H, which soon built a lucrative business dealing with seized vehicles.

6.) The vehicles were sold through Parks Auto Sales. S&H paid only half the towing fee to the city and kept various surcharges. This deal was described as "unusual" when compared to the deal worked out with another (less favored) entity called Bill's Wrecker.

7.) There were instances of employees being told they had to wait outside the office because Police Chief Mokwa was inside, meeting with S&H owner William Bialczak and Shepherd, the towing operation manager. (To be perfectly objective, I don't see an issue with this. Lower ranking employees are often barred from meetings of higher-ups. I've witnessed this all my adult life and I expect to continue witnessing it)

8.) Even after turning over the really sweet cars to S&H, the St. Louis tow lot still averaged over a million dollars a year in profit. OK, that's just obscene. Towing lots should be run in a break-even manner, not a source of squeezing blood from citizens. Shame on you, St. Louis.

9.) Parks Auto (the entity selling the seized vehicles) gave the Chief's daughter, Aimie Mokwa, a 2000 Dodge Neon, which she wrecked in 2002. Parks sold Aimie Mokwa three vehicles in the next five years for prices "far below wholesale value." The Post-Dispatch uncovered the car accident, which helped to show the police chief wasn't telling the whole truth when he said he didn't learn of his daughter's (frequent) use of S&H cars.

The (former) police chief now says he "might have known about it sooner but didn't think much of it at the time." OK, think about this: a business entity run by somebody who is (reportedly) one of your best friends...a guy who invites you to his son's wedding...gives your daughter a new car. She wrecks the car. She proceeds to get more cars at a steep discount. But you don't think much of it?

This is why the chief resigned. This is why he lost creditability with his board. Because Aimie Mokwa wrecked a car. That's how the whole mess unraveled.

This is the first towing scandal I've blogged about coming out of the state of Missouri. Oh, sure, I blogged about a mud-bog parking lot, and Missouri did get mentioned in the comprehensive Minneapolis report about abusive booting practices. But this is the first big Missouri story to hit www.towingutopia.com.

Thanks, S&H Parking for putting Missouri on the map when it comes to abusive and predatory practices in the towing industry.

Now I just need to do my usual thing: point out this is not a local phenomenon, but part of a national pattern of predatory towing practices.

Friday, July 25, 2008

An Ugly Towing Situation In Carrboro, North Carolina

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I had never heard of this place, but apparently Carrboro is some kind of suburb to Chapel Hill, North Carolina...

An ugly incident happened in Carrboro which caused a stand-off with a towing operator according to a report in the News & Observer.

The Mayor of Carrboro himself came to the apartment complex, where there were about 100 people gathered and two Carrboro police cars.

One side says a tow truck driver tried to hook a car with a young girl in the back seat. Brad Chandler of Chandler Towing says the parents of the child put their own baby in the rear seat to prevent the tow. Who you gonna believe?

The vehicles are being towed as part of a crackdown by the apartment complex to get rid of unsightly and unregistered vehicles. The issue has turned into a debate about immigration law, since there are allegations the policy basically targets poor Latinos in the apartment complex, and the county's Office of Human Rights is now involved.

A chat on the newspaper website focused--predictably--on immigration issues and not the national trend of abusive towing. Abusive towing tends to come down hardest on the poor and politically powerless because they are the least able to fight back. College students tend to get hard because of their TEMPORARY state of poverty and political disenfranchisement. In Minneapolis, I can see where the Somali community gets targeted.

But I think a lot of injustice could be derailed by asking "is the practice inherently abusive?" and not "can I prove the practice is targeting a certain segment of the population?" Somehow, it just seems intuitively easier to prove abuse rather than targeting.

To prove targeting, you have to know what was going on in somebody's head, which is a difficult proposition.

But to prove abuse, you only need to prove what is happening, which is hardly in dispute: the apartment complex is reportedly refusing to issue parking permits for anything but vehicles which are pristine in registration and appearance, and refusing to allow "commercial" vehicles. This is a drastic disruption of their established pattern and practice, on which their residents have justifiably come to depend.

One poster calling himself/herself "Osprey1" said, "The apartment management at this complex has sought not to give parking permits to most of the residents and it is not just Hispanics that live there. I have a friend who has lived at this complex for 5 years, paid her rent on time and they initially refused to give her a parking sticker because her paint was slightly faded on her vintage Super Beetle, which is not sitting on blocks, by the way. She works every day as a State employee."

The poster adds:

"To the bigots: don't talk unless you have personal knowledge of the situation."

Proof that one should focus on the PRACTICE and not the alleged TARGETING came shortly after the story broke. According to this News & Observer blog, the company apparently didn't have a license to be towing in Carrboro. Which leads us to the rather obvious question of what happens to the folks who were, indeed, towed by this company? More details were provided by a local radio station, which said a resident had been arrested for a physical confrontation with a tow truck driver.

Well, if the guy wasn't licensed, wasn't the towing an auto theft? And wasn't the resident simply trying to prevent an auto theft by confronting the driver?

It sounds like quite a grassroots uprising! The mayor has asked the apartment complex to stop towing cars, but they have refused.

Illegal Towing Kickbacks In Memphis, Tennessee (Give That Reporter An Emmy)

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The Fox-13 Problem Solvers are still kicking butt, this time with a report about (alleged) $25-per-vehicle kickbacks at a Memphis apartment complex...

The practice is contrary to a Tennessee state statute, 55.16.113, "kickbacks involving the towing of vehicles," and is a Class C misdemeanor. Due to the ever-widening circle of awareness caused by Fox-13's previous reports on the subject, a witness to the practice came forward and spilled the beans. I hope the next thing I hear about are indictments.

Apparently, the television station has received emails from all over the country because of this story. I'm included somewhere in that electronic pile. I have told Scott Madaus, the investigative reporter leading this media inquiry, that no matter how ugly the scandal might be, it is merely a local manifestation of a larger national trend of abusive towing practices. Any local television station or dead-tree based print media could do a similar story about local towing operators pushing the envelope, and produce the same groundswell of viewer/reader response.

And, geez, I hope they all do!

I will have to look up the Tennessee state statute in question and do my usual statutory analysis and critique. In the meantime, I sit back and watch, amazed, because Scott Madaus not only managed to rip the lid off this can of ugly worms, but he did it while nursing busted bones from a biking accident.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Towing Utopia Dot Com Says: Get Well Soon, Scott Madaus, Investigative Reporter

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Despite injuring himself in a bike accident and sporting a cast, Scott Madaus of the Fox 13 Problem Solvers in Memphis is still ripping a local towing scandal wide open.

According to a "teaser" which aired today, (and can be accessed over the internet) Madaus got a former security guard to come forward as a source. It appears kickbacks of $25 per car were helping to spur towing abuses at a Memphis apartment complex. See my two previous stories on this ugly situation, here and here.

But like I keep telling Scott in emails: it's not just a Memphis thing. Predatory, abusive towing is a national issue. I hope other television stations around the nation will be inspired to produce similar investigative reports on local abuses by the towing industry.

(Do not click "Read More")