- A violation of the county's towing ordinance can be anything from a missing sign to overcharging for vehicle retrieval. (Photo: TBD Staff)
This is the fourth installment in TBD Neighborhoods' ongoing investigative series on private property towing in Arlington. Last week, we looked at whether the landscape of towing in the county has changed over the past five years, the volume of tows and towing complaints in Arlington, and the possibility that towing fees could increase next year
In August, a woman pulled up to Westmont shopping center on Columbia Pike in Arlington and parked in its lot. She’d come to assist a friend whose car had broken down on the adjacent street. No more than five minutes after they started working to jump-start the car, the driver noticed her vehicle being towed. She called out to and chased after the driver to stop, but the truck kept going.
"He saw me and hopped in his truck and drove off as I was chasing after him," reads a complaint that the woman later filed with Arlington County. "I saw him smile in his rear-view mirror and he refused to stop."
Stop right there: According to county regulations, the tow-truck driver was committing a civil infraction. If motorists witness their vehicles on a tow truck before it leaves the premises, they are entitled to the option of something called a "drop fee," when the driver is supposed to release the vehicle at a cost of $25. In addition, the company in this case, Advanced Towing, was not able to produce photographs of the vehicle taken prior to towing. That’s another requirement.
Based on the evidence, Arlington County police "determined the tow of [the] vehicle was in violation of existing county ordinances."
What a glorious determination. How often, after all, do you get your local government to tell you that, yes, you were right, and the company that whisked away your car in a flash was wrong?
So what sanctions did Arlington County impose on Advanced Towing? Since the complainant "stated … that a refund would satisfy her ...no charges were filed against Advanced Towing," according to the police report.
So it goes in Arlington. Tow truck operators are vested with the authority to essentially fine you at will: They can snap up your car, drop it at a remote location, and charge you $115 for the trouble. Yet when they run afoul of the rules, there’s rarely any fine for them. A refund of the tow fee is usually all it takes to make the complaint go away.
Of the 91 complaints filed with the county over the past two years, there were violations, or possible violations, a total of 14 times, according to investigation reports obtained by TBD. And according to the records, no fines were ever issued against towing companies for these violations.
In the collective memory of the Arlington towing crowd, in fact, no one can remember any fines being issued since the county's towing law went into effect in 2006. Detective Matthew Owens, an Arlington County Police detective, says that since he took over investigations of towing complaints in spring of 2009, the only time a violation has gone to court is when he witnessed the violation himself.
The violations are typically technical yet critical: A sign warning people that towing is enforced at a particular lot is missing or inadequate, or the tow company is unable to produce a photograph of the vehicle prior to it being towed.
Rather than charges being filed, however, these infractions are usually resolved by the offer of a refund. In one example from January of this year, a complaint that resulted in Advanced Towing Company being found in violation was settled in just such a manner.
"Det. Owens determined that due to the fact that no sign was posted at the entrance from Wilson Boulevard, [the] vehicle should not have been towed. He further determined that since the signs were replaced so quickly, and a refund was made … no charges would be filed against Advanced Towing for inadequate signage."
In February of this year, ACPD found A-1 Towing and Recovery in violation of several provisions of the towing law for a tow from the CVS parking lot on Jefferson Davis Highway in Crystal City.
"Det. Owens determined that the tow of [the] vehicle without cause was a violation … due to the fact that [the driver] did not wish to prosecute and [A-1’s] willingness to make a refund, no charges were filed."
The county’s towing ordinance provides for fines of up to $1,000 in the case of a violation. Why are fines not pursued in these cases? A fine would result if charges were filed against the towing company, explains Owens. Charges haven’t been filed in any of the cases that he investigated, he says, because the complainants decided not to press charges once they were given a refund.
"If it is a violation, then the victim would be informed, and given an opportunity to decide whether that goes to court," Owens says. "Without a victim that’s willing to prosecute, I don’t have a case."
The county ordinance doesn’t require a fine when there is a violation. "It’s there as a tool for our police to ensure compliance," says Brian Stout, who staffs the county's Advisory Board on Tresspass Vehicle Towing. "The whole goal is to ensure compliance. It’s not meant as a tool necessarily to punish someone."
And Owens believes that for the most part, towing companies are complying. "Our ordinance keeps them on their toes," he says. Not every violation necessarily shows disregard for the ordinance, either. In a case where Advanced Towing hadn’t been able to show a photograph of the vehicle, for example, Owens used his judgment. "If they can’t provide a photo, could it have been the fact that they didn’t take a photo? It could. But based on the track record of the company usually being able to provide me with the photos within 45 minutes or an hour, it’s reasonable to think they took the photo and something happened to it."
Records obtained by TBD show that refunds are offered to complainants even in some cases where no violation is identified. Of the complaints we reviewed, Advanced Towing owner John O'Neill offered refunds in nine cases when a tow was deemed legal.
"It's part of a cost of doing business. It's not a favoritism type thing," O'Neill told his fellow members of the towing advisory board last week.
Fred Scheler, owner of Henry's Wrecker Service, pointed out it's in the companies' best interest to prevent charges from being filed. "If we go to court, I have to hire an attorney, which is $250 to $500, at a minimum," he said at the Nov. 29 advisory board meeting. "As soon as they file a court case, you've lost."
O'Neill says he refunds an average of two tow fees per day. When asked what leads him to offer a refund, even, in some cases, where a tow is deemed legal, he actually suggests that "it is mostly for charitable reasons."
Next up in our series, a look at why towing is so contentious, and how people tend to react after their cars are towed.