Thursday, 9 February 2012

Councilman cracks down on Predatory Towing

Brandon Wright had no idea he had parked in a tow-away zone, so he was dismayed to find his vehicle had been removed from a private Clifton parking lot on Jan. 19. Then he experienced sticker shock: The towing company insisted he owed 500 bucks to get his car back.

“I knew there must be some law that protects your car from literally being held hostage,” said Wright, 26, of Corryville, a recent University of Cincinnati law school graduate.

Sure enough, Ohio law does limit a towing fee to $90 per tow, plus $12 per day for storage. But Wright says the towing company claimed he had researched the wrong law.

Wright ended up paying $570 – and turned to City Hall for help. Wright's concerns, emailed to city officials on Jan. 26, inspired Councilmember P.G. Sittenfeld to consider a crackdown on “predatory towing practices.”

On Wednesday, Sittenfeld issued a news release saying his bi-partisan motion “has the signatures of all nine members of Council and will lead to harsher punishments for those who commit predatory towing.” The council members had signed a motion directing the city law department to draft new legislation within a month.

Sittenfeld says he wants to enact an ordinance with three main prongs against towing companies that overcharge people: “a harsh fine,” in an amount yet to be determined; potential jail time for repeat offenders; and offenders' removal from the list of towing services that the city hires on a rotating basis.

Noting that “there are a lot of good and honest towing companies,” Sittenfeld says, “I think there are probably endless people that have been taken advantage of.” He thinks most people probably don’t know their rights and wouldn’t know how to research them, as Wright did.

“This time, they happened to take advantage of the wrong person,” Sittenfeld said of Wright, and commended him for stepping forward in the hopes that other people won't be victimized.

Both Sittenfeld and Wright have heard people report similar experiences. Sittenfeld says companies that are unscrupulous can get away with no meaningful punishment.

Right now, Ohio law carries only a $150 fine for towing companies that are caught overcharging people, Sittenfeld said, adding, “That's not much of a deterrent,” because the fine doesn't cut into the company's ill-gained profits.

Sittenfeld vowed: “We’re going to put some strong deterrents on the books.”

In addition to contacting city officials, Wright filed a small-claims suit against the company that towed his vehicle, Kenwood Towing.

City police and the prosecutor's office mediated the dispute and persuaded the company to refund Wright's money; in exchange, Wright will withdraw a small-claims-court suit that he had filed, when the check for $442.26 clears. As long as that happens, Wright said, “my personal gripe with them is over and done with.”

A man named Tom who said he represents Kenwood Towing denied that the company overcharges. He refused to give a reporter his full name for this story, and said: “Ain't no story. Ask the city why they're charging so much.” Then he hung up.

Sittenfeld said he didn’t know what to make of that comment.

Wright, a political science major in college, was at first skeptical that his message to city leaders would get any attention. He was pleasantly surprised that it inspired action – not just for him, but also for “other people like me, college students who can't afford to pay $500.”

“The response that I received at least partially restored my faith in public service,” he said.

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