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WSP orders ‘patrol towing’ to cease

Courts to rule whether explicit request from lot owners is needed to take cars.

By Candace Heckman
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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.