Illegal Predatory Trespass Towing in Montgomery County, Maryland (MD)
And How to Get Four Times Your Money Back by Steve Baba Ph.D.
This is not legal advice. Any feedback (checking) is appreciated. SteveBabaPhd@aol.com
It is possible to conduct trespass towing legally, but because trespass towing companies are paid for each car towed, towing companies and the property owners have a financial incentive to cut corners and illegally tow cars. From my own observation living in Wheaton, Maryland, corners are cut and cars are illegally towed nearly 100% of the time. Of course some people deserve to be towed, such as healthy people who park in handicapped parking spaces, but even these people deserve to be legally towed and not have their rights violated by illegal predatory towing.
Illegal, Unreadable and Unclear Customer-Parking Signs
If the parking signs were readable from every parking space and clearly stated the parking rules, perhaps you would not have parked where you did or left the property or went to the “wrong” store. Your car would not have been towed. Your day would not have been ruined, and you would not be reading this.
It’s the law and common sense, that if a parking-lot owner really doesn’t want someone to park in his parking spots, he should install clearly readable signs directly in front of the parking spots saying who can park and who can’t park there.
But predatory towing companies don’t want to stop people from parking illegally. They actually want people to park illegally so that they can tow them for money. Therefore, predatory towing companies post very few signs that can only be read if you go out of your way and walk up to the sign.
It is not your legal obligation to get out of your car after parking, walk 50 feet to a sign, read the fine print and try to comprehend vague signs. It’s not your legal obligation, and would actually be criminal and likely to cause an accident if you stopped on a busy road to read the conditions detailed on a small-parking sign at the entrance to the property.
It is the property owner’s legal obligation to post signs that are “clearly readable” from any parking space and summarize the parking restrictions including the time and area restrictions. This and other selections from the Maryland and Montgomery County towing laws are below on this web page.
Like any sign, no-parking/customer-parking signs cost money to buy and install, so predatory towing companies almost always try to get by with an illegal subminimum number of signs. No-parking signs also distract from store signs. Stores would rather have people see “Sale Today” signs than parking signs. Custom printed signs that list the stores people can shop at also cost more than off-the-shelf “Customer Parking Only” signs, so the cheaper, generic signs are used despite confusing customers about which store they can shop at from a parking space. Does “Customer Parking Only,” mean for store A or store B if the parking lot is between both stores?
If a property owner is rich enough to have parking spots in a highly desired location, I don’t feel one bit sorry that they have to spend one or two hundred dollars per parking spot (about the cost of one towing) installing the correct amount of legal signs to protect their property rights to a parking space. For a property owner rich enough to own a parking spot in a highly desired area, say 50 yards from a Metro station, to claim poverty and complain about the high-cost of posting signs or the cost of a parking-lot entrance gate are as laughable as claims from mostly rich swimming pool owners that they should not have to spend money to build a fence around swimming pools to prevent kids from drowning.
Illegal Spotting and Requesting of Tows
While corner-cutting property owners don’t want to spend money on no-parking signs, they don’t want to spend money or time dealing with parking problems either. Just as the amount of parking signs are below the legal minimum, the amount of time a property owner spends “requesting” and “signing” for each tow is usually below the legal minimum.
Predatory towing companies offer property owners a free way to avoid having to spend time dealing with parking problems. At no cost to property owners, predatory towing companies watch (spot) cars and tow them away.
The service is free to property owners – sometimes better then free if illegal kickbacks are paid – but it’s not free to people whose cars are towed. It’s also unlawful, according to any reasonable reading of the law. The law says property owners, NOT the towing company, must “request” and “sign” the tow slip for every car towed. I don’t see how a property owner not physically at the car being towed can “request” or “sign” anything.
Only with twisted logic would someone say that after I called up a girl and asked her out for a date, the girl “requested” that I go out with her; I don’t see how even a lawyer can say that with a straight face. Yet, predatory towing companies make the WRITTEN statement as required by Maryland law, “A statement that the vehicle is being towed or removed at the request of the parking lot owner,” which is usually false or they unlawfully omit the statement.
Paid spotters or spotting is illegal under Maryland State law, but this “spotting” section of the law is currently in the appeals courts for being poorly written as being too vague. One court did say the definition of spotting was too vague to enforce, but this was overturned, so it’s uncertain whether spotting is/will be illegal as of June, 2015. The fact the people are engaging in spotting that may or may not be criminal, and the government is trying to outlaw it, shows that they are taking huge legal risks. I personally would not engage in anything that has a very good chance of being a crime.
Illegal, Unsigned, Blank Paperwork
I am not usually a big stickler for paper work being 100% accurate, but if 1) the property owner’s/agent’s name is missing from the paperwork as required by law, 2) the signature, as required by law, is missing from the paperwork (it was “signed” over the phone) and 3) the person signing (over the phone) does not know what he is signing, the paperwork is fatally flawed.
If you tried to cash a check, that had no name on it, the signature was “MGMT” (for management?) and the handwriting was all your handwriting, not that of the owner, you would be either arrested or thought mentally ill or both.
The paperwork is fatally flawed because the property owner is not physically present as legally required to “request” and “sign” for each car towed. It’s not only legally impossible, it’s also physically impossible for a person on the phone at a distant location to sign the tow slip, which legally has to be completed and on the car prior to any car being towed.
To me it’s as ridiculous as if I claimed that you could telephone me, anytime of the day or night, and I could sign a check for you over the phone, making sure the check was filled out properly. But just as a lawyer doing his job will come up with a ridiculous excuse for a murderer, a lawyer will come up with an unbelievable excuse for a predatory towing company.
If the property owner or the property owner’s agent does not answer the phone to “request” and “sign” a tow slip, the tow truck driver can do two things. The tow truck driver (usually paid on commission) can either stop the tow and not make any money or pretend that the person answered the phone “requested” a towing and “signed” the paperwork (over the phone). The property agent is legally required to keep a copy of the tow slip containing his signature (which is impossible) over the phone, so it’s unlikely that a property manager can provide legally required records. Most likely the approval is done routinely, and the property owner can’t remember anything about a 20 second phone call, which helps your case because they can’t remember anything with which to defend themselves. They may not even remember the phone call, wherein they “requested” and “signed” the tow slip, a phone call which may or may not have happened.
Gone in 60 Seconds.
Illegal Towing Before the Paperwork is Completed and before the Car is Safely Attached
Even towing companies admit that it’s not legally possible to tow a car in 60 seconds. Physically it’s possible to tow a car in 60 seconds, but it’s illegal and unsafe. A tow truck will drive up to a car’s rear wheels, lift the rear wheels up off the ground and drive off.
If you walked next door, technically off the property of the first store you visited, to a convenience store and were in the store two minutes and your car was gone when you got out, the towing was most likely illegal, because, the paperwork was not completed prior to the towing. The police department also had to be notified prior to towing.
Worse, while nobody was has been killed or hurt yet that I know of, it’s dangerous to tow a car even a few blocks that is physically unattached to the tow truck with only gravity holding the towed car on the tow truck.
Since it’s unsafe to tow a car just hanging on the end of a tow truck and it’s illegal to tow a car without the paperwork completed, the tow truck driver will tow the car a only a few blocks away, just out of sight, and then complete the paperwork and safely attach the towed car with straps.
In addition to not being on the physical scene to “request” the tow and “sign” the paperwork, the property manager is not on the scene to ensure the tow-driver safely or legally tows the car. Nor is the property owner on scene to help the tow truck driver deal with unpleasant customers, increasing the public disturbance risk. But the property owner or agent wants someone else, the tow company, to solve his parking problems for him without any effort himself; and they don’t care if it’s done legally or are willfully ignorant of towing laws.
The towing companies want to tow as fast as possible to get the fee for towing. By illegally towing the car in 60 seconds, they stole the right to reclaim your car from you on the spot for a drop fee, usually half of the towing fee, and illegally made you suffer the trouble of somehow getting to a tow lot, usually in a less desirable part of the county.
How to get your money back and triple damages (Four times your money back)
First, before you do anything, you need pay the towing company and get your car back as soon as possible to avoid storage fees. Borrow money from family and friends if you have to. The small claims court takes time and won’t help you immediately.
The owners of the towing company know they are breaking the law; but they are depending on most people not complaining or taking the time to sue. Their illegal business model is basically to steal $160 from 100 people and refund the money to a few people who sue or complain. It’s a profitable but illegal and unethical business model.
But the clerks and low-level employees may or may not know what is going on. Do not insult them or anyone. ESPN reporter Britt McHenry was filmed on video having a temper tantrum with a parking lot clerk, making fun of female clerk’s education, weight and teeth.
Sue the Property Owner who “authorized” and “signed” the towing, not the towing company
Both the tow truck company that illegally towed you and the private property owner who “authorized” the illegal tow of your car can be sued for your actual damages and triple damages.
The easiest and most obvious thing to do is sue the towing company, since they towed your car and their address is on the paperwork, but I recommend suing the property owner instead.
The property owner is less likely to want to show up and waste time in court than a predatory towing company, who considers showing up in court a cost of doing an illegal business. The property owner likely knows little about towing laws, which he is supposed to know about before “requesting” and “signing” for your car to be towed. The property owner is less likely to lie in court than predatory tow company employees. Property owners are less likely to knowingly engage in criminal behavior, and if they have unknowingly engaged in such behavior, they are likely to settle rather than engage in perjury to try to escape punishment.
Unless the property owner wants to represent himself in small claims court, he will have to spend $500 or so on a lawyer. The property owner is also more likely to pay if he loses. Predatory Towing companies are often fly-by-night firms that change names and go out of business leaving debts (to you) unpaid.
Send a demand letter by certified mail. There are plenty of other sites that explain how to file a small claim in small claims court. Hopefully you can settle after a strongly-worded demand letter and not even have to file small claims or go to small claims court, but often people only settle after the legal paperwork has been filed and they give up hope of the problem going away on its own.
A few lawsuits are often enough to make property owners live up to their lawful responsibilities and stop using predatory towing companies.
It does not matter if you parked against the rules; if they towed you illegally, they owe you triple damages and return of your towing charge (four times your money back)
Hopefully they will settle and small claims court will not be necessary; both they and you want to avoid an afternoon in small claims court. Also unexpected things happen in any court case; no case is a sure winner and no case is a sure loser.
If it does make it to small-claims court, the towing company or property owner is going to try to focus on any bad behavior on your part such as breaking parking rules (not a crime) and attempt to draw focus away from their crime of illegal towing.
First, they are supposed to be professionals and engaged in towing, so they have no excuse for breaking towing laws or any laws. Second, it does not matter if you are the most blatant parking violator; they still have to tow you legally. Even if you, a healthy person, parked in a handicapped spot, they have to tow you legally.
Towing companies don’t get a pass for breaking parking laws just because you may have broken some parking rule any more than the police get a pass for using excessive force against guilty criminals. If the police excessively beat someone up, it does not matter to charges against the police if the person beat up is innocent or guilty.
If the property owner or towing company makes claims that you disobeyed parking signs, your response should be that, while you did not knowingly park incorrectly (if true or thought it was not hurting anyone), in any case, whether or not you parked obeying the sign or not is irrelevant to the fact that they towed you illegally.
Both the state and county laws require (it’s not a maximum or negotiable amount) triple damages if they broke any single towing law; typically they break a handful. There is no exception where they get a pass on breaking parking laws because of any bad behavior on your part.
You can sue for both triple damages for violation of state towing laws and triple damages for violation of county towing laws
With return of your towing fee (your “actual damages”), you can sue for seven times the towing fee you paid. But this may likely be reduced by the judge to just triple damages and return of your money, because it was only one (illegal towing) violation.
On one hand, asking for seven times damages does increase your negotiating position. On the other hand, it sounds close to double jeopardy to me, and likely unfair such as receiving both a county and state speeding ticket from a cop for one speeding violation. It might also make one appear greedy. In any case, settling for return of the towing fee plus triple damages sounds good to me, especially if it saves the time of going to court.
“Actual damages,” also called “compensatory damages,” is a legal term based on the proven harm, loss, or injury you suffered. Under common law, damages are categorized into actual/compensatory damages and punitive damage. If your “actual damages” are more than just the towing fee, such as you lost a half-day of work, demand compensation.
Things to google and research:
Small Claims Court – Books on small claims court should be at your local library.
Demand Letter – Scare them so they settle out of court saving everyone time.
Montgomery County, Maryland (MD)Towing Laws (or whatever county you are in) – I have posted selections from the county towing laws and a link, but the link may get old fast. The section of laws “Sec. 30C-4” is likely to stay the same for years.
Maryland (MD) State Towing Laws (or whatever state you are in) – I have posted selections from the Maryland towing laws and a link, but the link may get old fast. The section of Maryland state towing laws is §21–10A, which you can google.
Selections of Montgomery Count Towing Laws, as of June, 2015, from:
(a) Requirement. Before towing a motor vehicle from private property without the consent of the vehicle owner, the property owner and the towing service must comply with all applicable provisions of this section.
(1) A property owner must post a sign, notifying the public of parking restrictions, at least 24 hours before towing or ordering the towing of an unauthorized vehicle.
(2) Sufficient numbers of signs must be posted permanently so that at least one sign is clearly readable from each parking area and each vehicle entrance to the property at all times. Alternatively, in a parking lot with more than 100 parking spaces, at least one sign must be posted in a conspicuous place for each 75 parking spaces, and each sign must be readable from all affected spaces.
(3) Each sign must:
a. Summarize all parking restrictions on the property enforced by towing unauthorized vehicles, including time and area restrictions;
b. Indicate that vehicles violating the restrictions may be towed at the vehicle owner's expense; and
c. List the telephone number of each towing service hired to tow unauthorized vehicles from the property, or a telephone number that is answered personally at all times of the day and night by the property owner or an agent of the owner who is informed of each vehicle towed from the property.
(4) Each sign must be sized, printed and located so that it is readable by motorists in daylight and at night.
(5) The property owner must maintain each sign in legible and unobstructed condition.
(c) Tow procedures.
(1) Except as provided in subsection (c)(10), a property owner must not tow a motor vehicle from the owner’s property unless the property owner has, directly or through an agent, expressly authorized the towing of the particular vehicle.
(2) The authorization to tow may take the form of a tow slip.
(3) The Office may issue a model tow slip.
(4) If a tow slip is used, the property owner or the owner's agent must sign the slip immediately before the vehicle is towed. A legible copy of the slip must be securely attached to the vehicle.
(5) Any property owner or any person acting as an agent of a property owner, must not:
a. Falsely state that a property owner authorized the towing of a particular vehicle;
b. Record any false information about the towing of a particular vehicle; or
c. Sign a tow slip before all of the information relating to the towing of a particular vehicle is recorded on the slip.
(6) A towing service must not charge a vehicle owner any fee for the services of another agent of the property owner.
(7) In this subsection, "owner" means the person in whose name title to the property is registered. The "owner" of general common elements of a condominium is the council of unit owners. The "owner" of limited common elements of a condominium is the unit owner or owners who have the exclusive right to use the common elements. "Property manager" means a person who generally manages the property on behalf of the owner.
(8) A person must not act as a property owner's agent for the purpose of ordering the towing of an unauthorized vehicle, unless the owner or property manager has expressly authorized in writing the person to so act.
(9) An agent of a property owner, for the purpose of ordering the towing of an unauthorized vehicle, must not:
a. Be employed by, or have any member of his or her immediate family employed by, any towing service; or
b. Have any financial interest in any towing service or the towing of any motor vehicle.
This provision does not apply if the towing service is the record owner of property from which a motor vehicle is towed.
(10) An unauthorized vehicle may be towed from private property without the express authorization of the property owner or the owner's agent only;
a. Between 2:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.; or
Sec. 30C-9. Liability for damages.
(a) Any trespass towing service, and any private property owner who authorizes, expressly or under a standing authorization, the towing of a vehicle from private property, are liable for violation of any duty imposed on the service or owner by this Chapter with regard to:
(1) Any towing of a vehicle that does not comply with this chapter;
(2) Any towing of a vehicle in the mistaken belief that the vehicle was not authorized to park in the place from which it was towed; and
(3) Any damages to a towed vehicle incurred during the tow or storage and caused by a lack of reasonable care by the towing service, the property owner or an agent of either.
(b) A property owner is not liable for the towing of a vehicle if the property owner did not authorize the towing, expressly or under a standing authorization.
(c) Except as provided in subsection (b), a property owner and a towing service are jointly and severally liable for the violation of any duty imposed by this Chapter on the towing service, with a right of contribution or indemnification.
(d) A vehicle owner must mitigate any damages recoverable under this chapter.
Selections from Maryland State Towing Laws: §21–10A (As of June, 2015)
(5) Before towing or removing the vehicle, shall have authorization of the parking lot owner which shall include:
(i) The name of the person authorizing the tow or removal;
(ii) A statement that the vehicle is being towed or removed at the request of the parking lot owner; and
(iii) Photographic evidence of the violation or event that precipitated the towing of the vehicle;
The owner or operator of a parking lot or the owner’s or operator’s agent may not have a vehicle towed or otherwise removed from the parking lot unless the owner, operator, or agent has placed in conspicuous locations, as described in subsection (b) of this section, signs that:
(1) Are at least 24 inches high and 30 inches wide;
(2) Are clearly visible to the driver of a motor vehicle entering or being parked in the parking lot;
(3) State the location to which the vehicle will be towed or removed and the name of the towing company;
(4) State that State law requires that the vehicle be available for reclamation 24 hours per day, 7 days per week;
(5) State the maximum amount that the owner of the vehicle may be charged for the towing or removal of the vehicle; and
(6) Provide the telephone number of a person who can be contacted to arrange for the reclaiming of the vehicle by its owner or the owner’s agent.
(b) The signs described in subsection (a) of this section shall be placed to provide at least 1 sign for every 7,500 square feet of parking space in the parking lot.
(7) May not employ or otherwise compensate individuals, commonly referred to as “spotters”, whose primary task is to report the presence of unauthorized parked vehicles for the purposes of towing or removal, and impounding;
(8) May not pay any remuneration to the owner, agent, or employee of the parking lot; and
(9) May not tow a vehicle solely for a violation of failure to display a valid current registration
Any person who undertakes the towing or removal of a vehicle from a parking lot in violation of any provision of this subtitle:
(1) Shall be liable for actual damages sustained by any person as a direct result of the violation; and
(2) Shall be liable to the vehicle owner, a secured party, an insurer, or a successor in interest for triple the amount paid by the owner or the owner’s agent to retake possession of the vehicle.
Lawyers: I realize class-action lawsuits are difficult to legally certify and there is little money in $1,000 individual towing cases, but if you can think of a way to certify a class-action lawsuit, property owners would take the easy way out and settle.
Key Trespass Towing Companies: Montrose Towing, G&G Towing, G & G Towing, ATT Towing, Milestone Towing, Henry's Wrecker Service, Diversified Recovery, Bethesda Towing (in Silver Spring), Ricky's Towing.
Authorized Towing is the best of the worst; I have actually seen them do a fully-legal towing once, but the quality does vary from tow-truck driver to driver.
Within the industry, trespass towing has a reputation of attracting inexperienced, transient workers desperate for money who quit once a better job shows up.
This September, 2015 Craigslist help-wanted ad shows that trespass towing companies require almost no qualifications and pay on a purely commission basis: