Courts to rule whether explicit request
from lot owners is needed to take cars.
By Candace Heckman
State police have ordered a Kent towing company to stop impounding
vehicles under a blanket authorization from property owners
or face losing its license.
A Washington State Patrol officer delivered the cease-and-desist
order to West Coast Towing on Feb. 27, demanding the company
stop acting as an agent for property owners.
West Coast had come under scrutiny for its practice of "patrol
towing" in South King County apartment complexes.
Patrol towing is what happens when tow-truck drivers ride
around looking for unauthorized cars. With general permission
from a parking-lot owner, the tow-truck company can hook up
a vehicle on the spot without a specific request or having
someone sign for an impound.
That practice is illegal under state law but could be trumped
by federal rules created when Congress deregulated the trucking
industry a decade ago.
Last month, a report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer outlined
the practice of patrol towing, the state law that prohibits
it and a federal court battle that may make patrol towing
legal after all.
John Tillison, who owns West Coast, said he is asking a federal
court for a restraining order against the state's order, so
that he can continue patrolling for unauthorized vehicles.
"I believe I'm right, and I guess we'll just see what
the judge says," Tillison said.
West Coast Towing won a federal court battle in Tillison's
home state of California last year when a judge ruled that
the city of San Diego could not stop his tow-truck drivers
from patrolling private parking lots. Tillison has sued Washington
state over the same sort of rules.
He would not be in business if property owners didn't want
him to do what he was doing, Tillison said.
"Like I said, it's about property owners' rights versus
trespassers' rights," Tillison added. West Coast concentrates
its business in residential parking lots around apartment
complexes, many of which have had problems with visitors and
people parking in the wrong spots.
He said that since receiving the cease-and-desist order,
he has stopped patrol towing and picked up only about 10 cars
over the weekend. Last week, before his visit from the State
Patrol, he hooked up more than 90 cars, Tillison said.
State Trooper Neil Dewey, who inspects towing companies,
said that in order to impound a vehicle from a private lot,
the tow-truck company must get the property owner or agent
requesting the impound to sign an authorization form specifying
where and when the car is being towed.
Not only was West Coast Towing not doing that, Tillison told
police flatly that he did not have to, Dewey said. "They're
taking cars. They're just taking them," Dewey said, adding
that, under state law, taking a car without specific permission,
whether from private or public property, could be construed
as auto theft.
Tillison said that not only does his service help apartment
managers control their own parking problems, but also because
the managers do not have to sign a specific authorization
form, they are protected from retaliation from people whose
cars are towed.