Tow Trucks in Houston
Today, the Houston Press had a great blog entry about tow trucks. Specifically, how they act above the law, like a hoard of marauding bandits who regularly break into cars so that they can steal them and hold them hostage until owners pay outrageous fees.
Tow truck drivers in Houston can break into your car in order to tow it — against state regulations — and here’s why: Law enforcement ain’t gonna stop ’em.
We learned this by following up on an e-mail from a guy who says he watched a driver for Fast Tow jimmy the locks on an SUV in order to get inside and secure the vehicle for towing. (The truck was parked on a portion of the road that, at that time of night, was a no-parking zone). It made us wonder: is this legal? Should be a fairly simple thing to find out, no? Boy, were we wrong.
The blog’s comments section is filled with personal anecdotes about unscrupulous tow truck drivers who jimmy (aka break into) cars to make towing easier. Tow truck drivers will even wait and watch someone get out of a car and then go tow it, and then demand a bribe if caught by the owner.
A Semi-Personal Anecdote about Towing in Houston
While blog comments are not necessarily the most reliable sources, they certainly fit my own experiences. One of the best stories I have heard was from my college roommate Eric.
He had gone downtown for something or other, and parked in one of those parking lots where you slip the right amount of money into a little slit that corresponds with the number of the spot where you parked your car. This Rice University engineer was not one to cut corners or break the rules, but when he returned he found his car had gone missing. If I remember the story correctly, at first he assumed it was stolen, but then realized it had probably been wrongly towed. After getting a ride home, he contacted the towing company whose number was posted at the parking lot, attempting to locate he car. He tried to explain that it had been wrongly towed, but to no avail. Eventually, he had to pay the towing fee, which I believe was somewhere over $200.
The tow truck companies messed with the wrong guy.
He did some quick research, and decided to file for a hearing against the tow truck company. Well, of course, he won. Part of prevailing in such a hearing means he was awarded:
Court costs to the prevailing party;
The reasonable cost of any photographs to an owner or operator of a vehicle who prevails;
An amount equal to the amount that the towing charge or booting removal charge exceeded fees for non-consent tows; and,
Reimbursement of fees paid for vehicle towing and storage or removal of a boot.
Despite having prevailed in the hearing, my roommate had quite some difficulty getting the tow company to pay him back. Eventually, he had to get a sheriff to show up at the towing facility and force the company to pay back the money they basically had stolen.
Alas, not everyone is as resourceful and driven that Rice engineer roommate.
Indeed, in a gun-friendly place like Texas, it is easy to imagine such a situation turning violent. Someone walks out to his or her car, only to see a stranger breaking in through the window, preparing to tow it away. I know some small part of me would want to be able to pull a gun on such scum.
After all, the purpose of parking and traffic laws should not be to line to pockets of these disgraceful companies, but rather to maintain the safety of our roadways, aesthetics of our neighborhoods, and business interests of our parking lots. If someone offers to move his or her vehicle, and perhaps pay whatever fine exists for the wrongful parking, then that should be enough to fulfill the purpose of the law. Letting tow trucks run wild only increases the risk of harm to our communities and compounds the danger of our streets and freeways.
The comments on the Houston Press blog are certainly not wanting for personal examples of tow trucks making our streets more, not less, hazardous. Indeed, a quick google search can find many such instances.
However, despite the gut reaction, we do have ways to ameliorate this despicable practice that our city seems to tolerate. The way to defeat the hegemonic power of this tow truck regime is through the democratic avenues of our duly elected officials.
City Hall needs to pass some laws.
There Ought to be a Law
First, Houston should impose strict liability upon tow truck companies. Regardless of whether it was their fault or not, tow truck companies should be held liable if they wrongly tow a vehicle. This legal standard would help ensure that the tow truck companies double check that they are correctly towing a vehicle. After all, the burden would be on them.
Secondly, Houston should not limit recovery for a wrongly towed vehicle to reimbursement of court costs and towing fees. The city should legislate that courts can provide recovery for Actual Damages.
To quote my Barbri practice book, Actual Damages means any damages recoverable at common law, including economic and non-economic, and tort damages. This standard includes mental anguish as well as pain and suffering.
Additionally, Houston should borrow from the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, and compound damages based on whether the wrongful towing was committed knowingly or intentionally. If the tow truck company knowingly towed a vehicle when it shouldn’t have, the court should be allowed to reward up to double actual damages. If the tow truck company intentionally towed a vehicle when it shouldn’t have, the court should be allowed to reward up to triple actual damages.
Such a calculation of damages may reach an rather high cost, but the power imbalance in the towing regime justifies creating an economic and legal incentive to guarantee that all towing is proper. After all, anecdotes and experience show that citizens have quite the difficult time negotiating with tow truck drivers. Tow truck drivers need incentive to admit to fault when confronted, and these sorts of damages are just the incentive that our city can provide.
Furthermore, Houston is a driving city. A person’s car is often a lifeline to work, school, family, or anything that Houston has to offer. To take away someone’s car is to remove her from a functioning city. City Hall should do everything it can to guarantee that those who have their cars wrongfully towed are properly compensated, and also guarantee an economic and legal incentive against wrongful towing.
Thirdly, Houston should prevent tow trucks from towing non-ticketed cars from public streets and parking lots. Tow trucks are not elected officials. They are not the police. They are not public servants and they do not act to protect and serve. Tow trucks are businesses, run by private citizens. They should not be allowed to remove other citizens’ vehicles at whim. Only upon approval from properly trained police officers should tow trucks have the authority to remove cars. We would not allow tow trucks to go around granting tickets for speeding or running red lights. Heck, Houston doesn’t even like it when the police do that via cameras. Then why do we let tow trucks enforce parking laws? This is a responsibility for the police, not private companies.
Fourth, Houston should legislate that tow trucks are city actors. If tow trucks are going to enforce parking laws like police, then they should be held responsible like police. If tow trucks are going to seize private property, then they should be held to same standard as the other grand seizer of property: the government.
Therefore, as state actors, tow truck drivers could be held subject to §1983 charges. This means that tow trucks could be brought to Federal Court for violating a citizen’s rights under the constitution. This would help ensure that tow trucks don’t just act in accordance with proper towing law, but act up to the highest standards of liberty. This would prevent discrimination in the method of towing. It would also allow drivers to remove their complaints from local elected judges who may be under the sway of tow truck company donors, and seek the judgement of the Federal Judiciary.
Fifth, tow trucks should not be allowed to breach the peace while towing. This rule would hold tow trucks to the same standards as repo men. Similarly to repo men, tow trucks generally do not need a judicial process before seizing a vehicle, nor do they need to provide notice. However, repo men are not allowed to breach the peace in the process of repossessing property. This means that if either repressor or the reposessee breaches the peace during a repossession, then the repossession is not OK.
If Houston applies this standard to tow trucks, it means that people who find their vehicles in the middle of being towed can stop the towing by breaching the peace. Breaching the peace requires no grand effort, a mere making a scene or loud temper tantrum should be enough. Heck, even onlookers who disapprove of a towing could prevent it by honking at the tow truck and generally breaching the peace.
Imposing this standard would help guarantee that if someone was being towed, well gosh darn it, he deserved it.
Finally, tow trucks should have to make reasonable attempt to provide notice to the person whose car is being towed and give that person a reasonable opportunity to move the car. Houston could accomplish this by creating standardized “notice cards” that people could place in their cars or under their windshields that include number where they could be contacted in case of towing. A tow truck would have to make a reasonable effort to locate such a card, contact the owner, and then grant that person a reasonable amount of time to move the vehicle.
After all, the purpose of parking and traffic laws is not to enrich private companies, but provide for safety, aesthetics, and business interests. If someone can move his car, then the goals of the laws are fulfilled. There is no need to force citizens to pay often-dangerous, private towing companies to guarantee that we follow the laws.
The state of towing in Houston is despicable. However, we have a way to resist this towing regime without resorting to violence. We have our duly elected representatives in City Hall. So write the mayor, write your city council person, write the Houston Chronicle. We can change the laws.
Or we can throw some eggs at tow trucks, whatever.