NMA Newsletter #277: Legalized Grand Theft Auto

Editor’s Note: The following is a first-hand account from John Pirog, a NMA member who was the victim of “predatory towing.” Predatory towing comes in several forms. One type, commonly referred to as patrol towing, uses a scout who spots vulnerable vehicles and then calls a nearby truck to tow them away. The entire process happens in the blink of an eye, leaving drivers little chance to respond. Vehicles parked illegally on private property, such as a no-parking area of a shopping mall or apartment complex are prime targets.

Once the vehicle is on the hook, the owner faces outrageous costs (towing, storage, and other fees) to get it back, not to mention the hassle and inconvenience involved.

On January 25th at around 4:45 a.m. my car was towed without my consent or knowledge. The car had plates with current tags and was properly insured. It was not located in a “No Parking Zone” and was on a public street.

The police did not red tag the car or give me any warning that it would be towed. Legally, they are no longer required to do so in Michigan, yet this leaves the owner of the car with no idea what happened.

The car was stuck in a mass of snow and ice and could not be moved by conventional means. When my roommate and I attempted to move the car using his aunt’s truck and my other car, both vehicles got stuck in the mess. Were it not for the severity of the weather, the car would have been moved sooner.

Under Michigan law, the police department must notify the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) within 24 hours of towing a vehicle. The state then has seven days to notify the owner of the vehicle’s seizure. My car was seized on January 25th yet the letter from the state was dated February 17th. When I wrote to the Secretary of State asking about the discrepancy, I was told that the car was initially towed as an “impounded” vehicle and was deemed “abandoned” on February 12th when I failed to claim it. I reported the car stolen the same day it was seized. The police officer on duty accessed his computer system and gave me a report number yet did not say or suggest that the car had or could have been towed.

I went to 31st District Court to contest the matter and lost the case. The tow company, Boulevard & Trumbull Towing (B&T) wanted $1,138 to release the vehicle. The car was purchased the previous year for $480 so I decided I would not waste further time, money or vacation days off from work. I sent them the signed title the next day along with a letter stating that if they accepted the title, they agreed to waive any further fees against me. Someone at the yard signed for the letter and I’ve heard nothing from them since.

So-called “storage fees” are simply a risk- and cost-free way for a towing company to make some extra cash. The $300 that B&T could get from the sale of my car as scrap more than covered any actual towing cost. Moreover, per the Detroit Legal News and an investigative report in 2013, the yard receives $70,800 per month from the City of Detroit for storing towed cars! When we consider that B&T has the contract in Detroit as their “official” towing company, it’s easy to follow the money trail.

I later contacted both state and national Senators and Representatives as well as local activists and officials. In researching the matter, I found that predatory towing goes on across the country.

In some states (most notably Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania), anti-predatory towing laws are either under consideration or in place. In reading the texts of the laws, I don’t believe they go far enough in protecting consumers, however they are a definite step in the right direction.

Towing a person’s plated and registered vehicle without giving them timely notification and demanding exorbitant fees once the vehicle is deemed “abandoned” is not only unfair and wrong. It is a practice that should be outlawed in every state.

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