Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Predatory Towing Is "A Great Way To Kill Local Business And Send A 'You Are Not Welcome Here' Message In Falls Church, Virginia"

A blog called "Blueweeds" is operated by none other than the husband of the mayor of Falls Church, Virginia. Somehow their marriage succeeds even while he puts forth very substantive commentary on civic issues in Falls Church, including a gutsy assessment of predatory towing which includes--be still, my foolish heart!--VIDEO, BABY!!!!!

On Memorial Day, 2008, while city visitors were...

...doing stuff like putting flowers on the graves of soldiers, or so I would freely assume, predatory tow trucks were doing their best to mess up this sacred American holiday. But the predators didn't manage to be unnoticed. Somebody had a video camera and now the whole world can watch.

Following the posting of the video on YouTube, and on Blueweeds, a lot of substantive and detailed civic commentary came out of the woodwork. Here is the thumbnail summary:

* Whether the city of Falls Church benefits from this activity is doubted, "since the tow trucks are operated out of Fairfax County." The businesses at the shopping center pictured in the video lose clients despite popular stores and restaurants.

* "Who thought up this barbaric practice? Too many of us have been victims of this and the fees to get your car out of impound are no different than paying ransom for a car held hostage. Recently, I was in the Giant Food store next to GMHS, and a woman with three small kids was desperately trying to find out where her car had been taken.

"She seemed so distraught, I felt compelled to help her as any decent person would. She explained that she had been shopping at the Giant Food and her car would not start when she returned. Her in-laws came to pick her up as she had a lot of perishable foods and didn't want them spoiled waiting for a tow truck to take it for repair. The next day they returned with a 'Triple A' tow truck to take the car to a repair shop and her car was gone.

" One of the managers said the strip mall management company had a sign stating cars left over a certain period of time would be towed as it is assumed they are parking there to use the West Falls Church Metro. She had to pay to get her car out of impound so she could have it towed for repair! IS THIS HOW WE TREAT CITIZENS AND GUESTS OF FALLS CHURCH? I have lived here all my life and this is not the same lovely community I grew up in and USED TO cherish until it became so commercialized!"

* "My own recent fav(orite) tow truck story came on the Fourth of July in Arlington. (Virginia) There's a parking lot on Wilson where you've got a straight view of the Mall, perfect for fireworks watching. During that time, at least three cars were towed from the lot. This only ended when one person blocked off one of the lot entrances with her car, and we kept watching the other, going back to our cars when another tow truck came around.

"The best part? The lot is for the long-closed Taco Bell. No one uses it for anything."

* Towing is regulated by the state and there is only so much the city of Falls Church can do, despite having a Towing Commission and a recently-updated towing ordinance.

* Blame was placed on "stand alone" parking and inefficient use of parking resources by businesses with their own lots, who don't make agreements to share.

Monday, September 29, 2008

San Marcos, Texas Aims For Reform Of Predatory Towing...Or Do They?

Flickr.com photo

Some months back, I blogged about the situation in San Marcos, Texas, where predatory towing was giving the town a "black mark" in the public eye...

I recently tried to follow up and see what San Marcos had done about its predatory towing. The answer: probably made it worse while supposedly making it better.

First of all, on September 5...after sitting on this issue through most of the summer, it appears...San Marcos "revised" the towing fees. Yeah, they "revised" the fees all right: UPWARD.

Current word, according to this article, is San Marcos will address the abusive towing practices at a "future meeting." Reform--such as NOT TOWING PEOPLE'S CARS ALL THE WAY TO AUSTIN, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD--seems pretty doubtful.

For now, it is probably advisable to avoid this city, which has such tourist destinations as the popular San Marcos Outlet Mall, pictured above.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Portland Towing Scam Abuses The Handicapped--Sean Cruz Exposes It!

Flickr.com photo

I only recently found out about Sean Cruz and all his work in Oregon, which I blogged about in this post. Well, it turns out a predatory towing issue Sean was banging the drum about recently made some media march to battle to expose a shocking abuse of handicapped citizens happening in Portland. Here is the article..

...which shows every sign of being a result of Sean's handiwork from his original blog post about the outrageous scam, click here.

The long and the short of the scam went like this: There was a restaurant named McCall's, and it was no longer in business. But the restaurant's parking lot had some handicapped spaces, and a guy named Mike Meier, a paraplegic, parked there with his handicapped permit properly displayed. And he got towed...for not having a "special McCall's permit," or so he was told.

It turns out the towing company, Sergeants Towing, had been hauling vehicles away from that spot for half a year without any legal authority to do so.

Yes, Sergeants Towing once had a contract to patrol that particular parking lot...Oregon being the only one of the three West Coast states which even ALLOWS "patrol towing"...but the contract was no longer valid. The business which had contracted with the towing company wasn't even in that building anymore.

Think Of It As "Mineral Rights" To The Steel In Your Car

Tim Barrett, who focuses on predatory towing in the State of Oregon and has worked closely with Sean Cruz, says unscrupulous towing companies who are engaged in "patrol towing" look upon these contracts as "mineral rights." Even if the business which granted the "right" to patrol the lot ceases to exist, predatory towing companies see the lots as their "turf" and continue to tow cars...even when the lot is virtually empty! And, as it turns out, even towing from the handicapped spots.

Well, now Sergeants will have to pay back all that money. And it all happened because a paraplegic man STOOD UP FOR HIS RIGHTS and wouldn't let go of the issue for FIVE MONTHS. His hunch said something was wrong, and he wouldn't let go of that hunch.

Mike Meier, you the man.

The Amazing "Montreal Model" Of Non-Consent Towing

Montreal does something incredibly unique when it comes to towing cars in the winter: they tow the car to get it out of the way, then they BRING IT BACK!

There are still many flaws in their system, for example...

...the YouTube member who submitted this video was complaining about how vehicles were towed without first being given "advisories," then were dumped in spots quite different from where they were originally parked. Furthermore, the vehicles were then given tickets for being parked in those spots.

But if you live in a city like St. Paul, Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, you'd have to be thinking WHAT ARE THOSE CANADIANS COMPLAINING ABOUT? Their municipal governments move the cars so they can, in effect, sweep under them? Then they give the cars BACK? The fines and inconvenience are relatively MINOR compared to a trip to the impound lot?

The Montreal model shows how many of our assumptions about how things "have to be" are inaccurate. Canada is incredibly concerned about human rights, and that concern even shows up in how they tow vehicles. Or how they DON'T tow vehicles; at least not all the way to the impound lot.

Wouldn't electronic notification work a world of good, here? The people sleeping in those nearby buildings would receive an email (it might come to their Blackberry device) as well as a call on their cell phone, or a text message. The message would tell them to MOVE THEIR CAR or it will get moved for them.

Even in Canada--which has quite an interesting model--there is room for improvement, and for more innovative use of technology to make towing less predatory, less abusive, less random and inconvenient and bureaucratic. Oh, need I mention: less of a violation of human rights.

And Speaking Of Better Technology

Oh, yeah, this is indeed my first video embed on this blog. I picked up a few tricks on my other blog, while covering the RNC 2008 protests, and I'm applying that knowledge here. I'd really like to shoot some video of the "tricked and trapped on Washington Ave. SE" phenomenon, and present it here at some point down the road.

Heh, heh. "Down the road." Punny. I slay myself.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Cell Phone Video Cameras Document Predatory Towing

So here's a cool video which turned up in the blog-o-sphere, click here. This guy...

...turned on his cell phone video camera and started documenting what was happening with cars getting towed...including one which was, um, all-too-familiar.

I hear stories all the time about the outrageous and predatory towing. Citizens, reach for your cell phone and put it on the internet. Dump it on YouTube. Send out links.

If it's caught on video, they can't say it didn't happen.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A "Towing Ordeal" In Oregon Blogged About By "Sophie"

Photo From Sophie's Blog

"Sophie" sounds like a very nice woman, and we share a common interest of "re-purposing" cast off treasures. Who would be mean to somebody like Sophie? A nasty towing company called "Beaverton Towing," that's who...

In between discussions about antiques and her ordinary life, Sophie's blog tells a sordid, bloody tale about "the parking lot of doom" and her spontaneous crusade to get justice after a case of predatory towing. Click to the left for one of the most vivid entries, then use the search term "towing" on Sophie's blog to find all the ugly details.

Sophie's (layperson) attempt at legal research produced a classic bureaucratic runaround, and a discovery that a supposed "federal law" to protect citizens from predatory towing doesn't do much of anything...except allegedly empower states to do something. If they want. When they get around to it. Yawn. Nappy time.

On the one hand, the digging which went into my last handful of posts tell me Oregon is a predatory towing theme park. But on the other hand, I've discovered there are activists and journalists vigorously exposing these issues in Oregon...is it possible Oregon is no better and no worse than a lot of other places, but some folks in Oregon are awake and aware? I hope that's actually the case.

A New Towing Company Trick In Portland, Oregon

Photo By John Hoff

Just when I thought I'd heard every low-down, dodgy artifice (some) (unsavory) towing companies use, something surprising comes out of Portland. There, a towing company was playing "musical piece of (expletive) cars" on the public streets...

It can all be found in this article from The Mercury--a wonderful publication, though eerily similar to Seattle Weekly and The Stranger. (I suspect there are some strong ties between these publications, old faves from my Seattle days in the 1990s)

But back to Portland: there, a towing company slash salvage-yard-starter-kit basically turned public streets into its own private storage area for junkers. Nice. Portland, Oregon is beginning to sounds like a theme park of predatory and abusive towing issues.

As for the picture...it's a car my brother was hauling off for scrap. My son and his little cousins thought it would be fun to set off smoke bombs on the vehicle and make it look like it was burning up just as my brother walked out of the house.

The Face Of Predatory Towing Abuse Activism In Oregon--Sean Cruz

Image From The Blog Of Sean Cruz

I learned of Sean Cruz from an article in the Portland Mercury, which discussed how a towing company mistakenly and REPEATEDLY towed his legally parked vehicle. Most people would be forced to passively endure, or perhaps complain to a public official, but Sean Cruz...

...was the Chief of Staff for State Senator Avel Gordly, Democrat, Northeast Portland. So LEGISLATION came out of what might otherwise be nothing but a private and infuriating burden to bear.

Now, besides many of the other issues dear to him, such as the rights of Latino workers, Cruz blogs quite a bit about the predatory towing issues in which he is entangled, such as this recent post entitled "Urgent Portland Predatory Towing Alert! Sergeant's Towing running tow scam on public property!"

As I try to stitch together a blog to cover predatory towing issues on a NATIONAL scale, it is amazing to discover these highly developed pockets of resistance in places like Carrboro, North Carolina or a longtime crusader like Sean Cruz. Predatory towing is real, but so is spirited resistance to predatory towing practices.

"Hero Lessons" In Portland, Oregon

Flickr.com Photo

According to an oldie-but-goody article in the Portland Mercury, becoming a hero is easy. Just take on the predatory practices of the towing companies like Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard did...

Here is the article (click here) and I'd have to say the advice is very sound. From Orlando, Florida to West Lafayette, Indiana, to the nearly-revolutionary situation in Carrboro, North Carolina, all discussed on this blog, the same pattern emerges: politicians who take on "big fat meanie" towing entities end up smelling like a rose in terms of public opinion. The fact the cause is just and the politician will be on the side of the angels is just gravy to pour on top of the public opinion polls.

So why don't MORE politicians try this tactic? Well, if I keep getting the word out through this blog...maybe more politicians might! And by the way...Randy Leonard is still a commissioner, which is further proof of how well the tactic pays off.

(And yes, I have been spending a lot of quality time with the Portland Mercury in these last few blog posts. We're very happy together, thanks.) Here is another great article from that publication about how Portland's commissioners decided to cap towing fees.

P.S. The image is Portland Oregon's "Copper Lady," second largest copper statue in the world; the first being the Statue of Liberty.

Take My Liberty...But Leave Me My Car In Portland, Oregon

Flickr.com Photo

The content of this blog rests beneath a kind of thesis, visible on what might be called the "masthead" of this website: in modern America, it is often preferable to lose a day or two of freedom than to lose your vehicle.

A sad story from Portland, Oregon drives this point home...

Contia Orsby, 58, was living in her vehicle after a series of hardships that were NOT her moral fault, including being injured while working in a nursing home. (She attempted to keep a man in his 90s from falling, a common enough way to get injured while working this kind of job) Orsby ended up living in her car, and made the mistake of using a pair of brass knuckles as a "key ring."

To me, that makes sense if you're a 58-year-old woman desperately living in your vehicle and waiting for the Social Security Administration to decide, yup, you really do have slipped discs in your back, just like all the doctors say. Police doing a so-called "welfare check" called the brass knuckles a "concealed weapon." But (and here is the key sentence in the whole story) "instead of taking her to jail, they towed her car."

Why? Because towing a car is usually a much more draconian punishment than a night in jail (like I've been saying since Day One, Blog Entry One) but Americans lack the legal and constitutional protections for their VEHICLE which they have for their HOUSE or their PERSON.

As a result of this tow in lieu of arrest, Orsby spent six weeks sleeping outside. Good thing Oregon is much more temperate than Minnesota. Only through the intervention of a church did she manage to get her vehicle slash home back...with some serious delay caused by the authorities losing her keys, then wanting Orsby to pay to have the piece-of-junk 1988 rekeyed.

(No offense to Orsby...my 1988 was a piece of junk, and I just recently rid myself of it, click here)

The previous blog post just put Oregon on the towing utopia map, but now I see the state has been making up for lost time. Thanks, once again, to The Mercury for this informative piece about Orsby's ordeal. (Click here)

P.S. Yes, the Flickr.com illustration was indeed taken in Portland, Oregon.

Predatory Tow Trucks Have Been Too Busy In Beaverton, Oregon

Flickr.com Photo

Once again, the blog-o-sphere is coming through with detailed documentation of predatory towing, this time at a strip mall in Beaverton, Oregon...

According to a blog called "The Mercury," (click here) there is a tricky situation where the lot appears to be "common parking" for a bunch of neighboring businesses, but tow trucks are making distinctions about where vehicles park versus which particular businesses are patronized...plus it's a "tow at will" situation rather than based on individual complaints.

And speaking of complaints...I have a minor one about this otherwise informative blog entry. The blog doesn't name the business in question, opting instead to censor the business name like an expletive with a row of asterisks. (****)

I say NAME THE NAMES of businesses which engage in predatory towing, like I've done in previous blog entries, like this one.

But otherwise I'm pretty happy, because Retriever Towing in "Busy Beaverton" just put Oregon on the predatory towing map.

P.S. I know what you're thinking: Why does this beaver have red teeth? Well, I hope I've made it clear there is something PREDATORY happening, here, and this creepy beaver image from Flickr.com reflects as much.

New Jersey Law Fights Predatory Towing

Flickr.com Photo

Thanks to the website of a New Jersey law firm, I just learned of a relatively new statute which fights predatory towing. In fact, it's actually...

..named the "Predatory Towing Act."

This is very exciting, because it means I have to expend slightly less effort just to convince people there is indeed a recognizable and common phenomenon called "predatory (and abusive) towing." New Jersey seems to get it, and this is a fine way to put New Jersey on the Towing Utopia map with my first posting about that state.

The blog post from the law firm does point out (what they consider to be) some flaws with the law, in particular some signage requirements which might be "onerous." Well, considering some of the unreadable, neglected signage I've seen which SUPPOSEDLY warns people about towing, like this example in St. Paul (click here) I think "onerous" signage is a small price to pay for some progress against predatory towing.

What I find interesting and kind of cool is the fact this law apparently grew out of a small but intense "parking war." It's amazing how something minor can escalate like that...probably fueled by lethal combination of bad temper and greed.

The Predatory Towing Plot Thickens In Springfield, Massachusetts

Flickr.com Photo

Springfield, Massachusetts continues to be embroiled in an epic towing scandal, the already-hot pot only heated further and stirred by the release of an auditor's report listing...

...in detail the various violations of the "Towing Alliance" which has control of the city government's towing contract. For now.

A local blog called "The Intruder" has been providing all the details--and I mean, ALL THE DOWN AND DIRTY DETAILS--not just summarizing and throwing out a headline in the manner of more mainstream media but really digging deep and getting to the "bloggy bottom" of things.

Click here for the latest from "The Intruder."

Also, it appears the towing issues have forced at least one STATE representative to weigh in on the issue, and details are once again in "The Intruder." Click here.

Given the fact The Intruder is so on top of things, this frees up Towing Utopia to concentrate on predatory and abusive towing scandals in other cities. I've communicated briefly with the guy who runs "The Intruder" and let him know my view: Springfield, Massachusetts is part of a greater national pattern, and many of these problems can be solved through better application of available technology.

(The photo is from a statue in Springfield, Massachusetts. The old folk saying is "a watched pot never boils" but people ARE watching and Springfield IS boiling)

Monday, September 15, 2008

In St. Paul 21 Minutes Turns Into TWO DAYS At The Impound Lot

Photo By John Hoff, September 1, 2008, St. Paul, Minnesota

This story comes from a friend of mine who works for the Hawthorne Neighborhood Association, Jeff Skrenes, who thankfully now lives (once again) in Minneapolis instead of St. Paul. The picture above just shows, well, St. Paul and its touching concern for the rights of citizens.

Jeff writes as follows...

Several years ago (2001, I think, but maybe 2002) we had ourselves a mighty snowstorm. I had just moved in with my now ex-wife and wasn't entirely familiar with the parking rules in St. Paul versus Minneapolis. I thoguht I had parked on the right side of the street.

Well, we look out the window and what do we see? A tow truck hooking up to my car. I ran outside immediately, with no shoes or boots on, to try to get the tow truck driver to let my car down so I could park it appropriately. he refused, despite the fact there were at least six other vehicles right there he could have picked up after letting mine down.

His reasoning was that once he hooks a vehicle up, it's his legal obligation to bring it in, especially after doing initial paperwork and notifying others about the pickup. But he would be able to let it down for a $50 fee which--not surprisingly--would have to be in cash, not a check or a credit card.

he could go on about his legal obligation, but was clearly willing to let that go for a few extra bucks. We didn't have cash on us, and it was late enough that the stores nearby with ATMs were closed. If I'd had anything more than socks on my feet, I would have stood in front of the truck until either he let my car go or the police came. but even with my high tolerance for cold (readers note: Jeff is from the "UP" of Michigan) I couldn't stay out there that long.

We followed the truck directly to the impound lot and proceeded to wait in line behind plenty of other p***ed off folks, mainly poor and minority families. By the time we filed out the necessary paperwork, the car had been in the lot for a grand total of 21 minutes: 11:43 p.m. to 12:04 a.m. Since it had passed midnight, I was charged for having the car on the lot FOR TWO DAYS!!!!

Yup, $147 towing fee, $25 for sixteen minutes and 59 seconds, and other $25 for the remaining four minutes and one second. This was twelve days before Christmas. Do the twelve days of Christmas begin on the 25th or the 13th? Because if it's the latter, then "on the first day of Christmas my city gave to me: frostbite and a towing fee."

Saturday, September 6, 2008

In St. Paul, Minnesota, You Better Be REALLY Careful Where You Park, Mister

Photo by John Hoff, September 4, 2008

I took this picture at the State Capitol while documenting the various protests during RNC 2008. And it just goes to show you some parking warnings you should take very, very seriously.

(Do not click "Read More")