Tow truck drivers don't have it easy. Those bold wreckers can be knights in shining armor when a car breaks down on a dark state road. Or they can be something akin to thieves for people who park, say, at the 7-Eleven in Thornton Park, buy a bottle of water and then walk next door for a cup of Starbucks coffee.
There's been a media frenzy surrounding this 7-Eleven and its infamous car-removal practices, particularly after last week's high-profile towing of a car with a young child left inside. You've read it in the Sentinel, seen Shannon Hori of Channel 2 broadcast live from the scene, and heard radio station personalities Doc & Johnny from WXXL patrolling the perimeter to warn potential victims. But these tow professionals know what they are doing, and unless you get lucky and they break the rules, there's nothing you can do to stop them. It took me three days of solid research to reach that conclusion. But then, for me, it got personal.
In my case, at the end of February, by the time I stepped outside of Starbucks with my coffee -- the daily special served in no time at all, no waiting in line -- my car was rolling away from me, suspended on a TowTruck Co. of Orlando rig (the same outfit that tows from Orlando Weekly lots). I yelled for the driver to stop, and he did, pausing long enough for me to get closer and for him to hear my pleading. Then he gunned his engine and peeled around the corner, taking my credit cards and cell phone -- locked inside my car -- with him. All this in less than 10 minutes from the moment I drove onto the property at 30 N. Summerlin Ave.
While waiting for a rescue ride on that Friday afternoon, the towing subculture that characterizes this 7-Eleven made for interesting loitering. The once sleepy area is now a bustling crossroads in the heart of the revitalized Thornton Park neighborhood on the other side of Lake Eola from the downtown business district. The store sits on a slice of prime real estate with 14 precious parking places. This is a community with a fast-moving mix of familiar homeless faces, working professionals, families in minivans, unsupervised children waiting in cars, artistic types, stoned types, semi-urban dwellers, schoolchildren, bicycle and bus riders -- some who do it for the environment and others who do it until their licenses are reinstated. The 7-Eleven cashiers are good-hearted and let people in distress use the phone while they tell you that they don't have anything to do with how the towing company operates.
I called the number on the sign for TowTruck Co. and learned how to pick up my car from the fenced-in lot off South Orange Blossom Trail, on 29th Street, once I had $100 cash. While I was burning time, some of the regulars clued me in on how things really work: The trucks hide around the corner, I found out, waiting to hear from a radio-equipped scout on the property on the lookout for people like me who don't know the rules. When the truck arrives, things happen quickly. The tow-truck driver doesn't secure your car completely; instead he grabs and goes, stopping around the corner to finish the job. These are all practices associated with "predatory towing," an aggressive and lucrative offshoot of "trespass" towing. Some companies specialize in it.
The TowTruck dispatcher at the holding lot was polite, if curt, when we discussed my options: Pay the $100 and take the car, or start racking up $15 a day in storage fees. There was no way around it. They said they had me on videotape walking over to the Starbucks (which they keep on file for an undetermined amount of time), in clear violation of 7-Eleven's wishes for the use of its spaces. The police were not likely to do anything, he said, since no law was broken. And if I wanted to see them in court I could pick up the papers in the Orange County Courthouse -- Room 305, I later found -- to initiate a small-claims lawsuit. I paid the piper.
My resulting trudge through the muck of city/county/state regulations did help to clarify a situation that's not easily deciphered by consumers in distress. The key is in the code, or more accurately, in the interpretation of the words. Here's where it gets tricky.
In the Florida Statutes, answers lie in Title XL, Chapter 715, Section 715.07. In the Orange County Code of Ordinances, look into Chapter 35, Article II, Division 1, Sec. 35-26. And in the Orlando City Code, it's in Article IX, Sec. 39.86. All of them mirror each other with minor differences; the Florida Statutes are generally considered supreme. The basic rules are clear.
For starters, it was flat-out wrong for me to buy the cup of coffee at Starbucks while my car was parked in the 7-Eleven lot, even though I did not know it at the time. Property owners have the right to decide who can and can't park on their property. 7-Eleven is no different. They're not in the business of being neighborly.
A representative for 7-Eleven Inc., Michael Raymond, says his company exclusively contracted with TowTruck Co. to keep this lot clear for customers. "Our 7-Eleven customers like to be able to pull into our business and purchase what they want -- to come in quickly and leave quickly," Raymond says.
But no money can change hands between TowTruck and 7-Eleven. The tow guys work for whatever they can make hauling away the cars of customers who leave the 7-Eleven parking lot -- even to walk down the block to throw something in a garbage can. They know what they're looking for. (Customers also can shop in the small, nondescript consignment shop housed in the same building as 7-Eleven without being towed, which adds another oddity to the scenario.)
Raymond says an agreement was established between a 7-Eleven field consultant and TowTruck Co. The contract, dated May 11, 2002, is on file at Orlando Police headquarters, as required. The contract is in effect for an "indefinite" period of time, and it "holds harmless the property owner from damages resulting from the towing company's actions while engaged in the performances of their services."
So when store employees say that they have nothing to do with the truck drivers, they really don't. But that indemnification in the contract raised the eyebrow of attorney Frederick R. Mann (whose office is around the corner from the store). Mann feels liability could still be at question, but only if the tow company breaks the law. When they do, infractions can be of a civil or criminal nature.
For instance, when TowTruck towed the minivan with 7-year-old child in it on June 10, the mother and another child were in the store and then made the veer to Starbucks. The decision to tow the car was a clean call. Michael Callarman, general manager for TowTruck, says his driver didn't see the kids through the darkly tinted windows, and when the driver stopped to tighten his straps (ahem), he noticed the kid. The driver called Callarman, who called the police. Ultimately, Capt. Joe Robinson of the Orlando Police Department says his officer on duty did not issue a ticket and the department has no plans to further investigate. Callarman says that's because they knew his driver did not intentionally take the kid away and worked to reunite mother and child.
Nonetheless, TowTruck did not observe the prerequisites for towing as established in the Florida Statutes. The statute says that drivers cannot tow a "natural person" (as opposed to a dead person, notes Callarman, who has had to tow vehicles with bodies en route to burial). And attorney Mann says the issues of "false imprisonment of a child" could go somewhere. It's all in the interpretation.
After better understanding the guidelines, I discovered a possible civil violation in my case. The state statute accounts for a situation in which a vehicle owner comes back to his or her car before, "The vehicle has already been connected to the towing or removal apparatus." The meaning of that can be interpreted differently. To some, that means if the tow-truck driver hasn't hooked up the car yet, the owner can jump in and drive away. But if the towing equipment -- stinger or chains or whatever -- has been attached but the car isn't moving yet, the tow-truck driver must offer the "drop" rate, which is set at 50 percent of the regulated trespass tow charge of $100. And the tow-truck driver has to give you 10 minutes to get the money, cash only.
If the car is loaded and the tow truck is rolling but not off the property, whether or not the "drop" rate applies depends on the company doing the towing. It's TowTruck's policy not to stop even if the loaded car has not left the lot. Witnesses have seen them do it, however, and Callarman says that if he catches a driver dropping a car "for a cute girl" or something, he docks their pay $100. So in his eyes, even as I was chasing my car out of the lot and the driver acknowledged me, he didn't have to stop and offer the drop rate. That's where I take issue.
Natasha Permaul, legal adviser to the Orlando Police Department, says they are "in the process of amending the code for purposes of clarification," because of so much potential for confusion. The wording on the books that applies to my beef is one of the sticky areas they aim to clear up so that officers can uniformly apply city code Section 39.88 (Return of Owner Prior to Tow), which keys on what constitutes being "connected to the towing or removal apparatus."
At Princeton Towing, owner Floyd West, who does some trespass work in downtown, tells his drivers to always drop the car if the owner comes out. "I don't like the word 'vulture.' I have a problem with that," West says. Still he believes in the rights of property owners to have people towed away for leaving the property. "No one wants to be towed under those conditions, but they have to bear in mind ... that they are stealing from that business."
Route of the wronged
What to do? I went back to the Orange County code, Sec. 35-26 (g), which tells citizens that consumer complaints "concerning excessive charges or alleged bad practices" should be "referred for investigation and resolution to the manager of the department of general services or such other person as may designated for such purpose by the county administrator."
My visit to the county administrator's office led me to assistant county attorney George L. Dorsett. He explained that such complaints are properly referred to the county's Consumer Fraud Unit. A complaint form can be downloaded (orangecountyfl.net, go to "resources" and highlight "Consumer Complaint Form").
Carlos J. Morales, consumer investigator supervisor, Orange County Consumer Fraud Unit, told me that, "As soon as we get [the form], we'll send it to the [county] and we'll attempt to mediate the problem. ... If we discover violation of Florida Statutes we'll address those with the merchant. These include the filing of criminal charges (if we have those). If it is civil, all we can do is mediate."
I filed a fraud complaint, which everyone who has had questionable dealings with any company should do. If you want to make a little more fuss, e-mail Dorsett's office (George.Dorsett@ocfl.net) and let him know what's going on as well. Of course, there's every likelihood that my fraud complaint will result in no action at all.
Back to small-claims court. To recover the $100 towing fee from TowTruck, I paid a court fee of $96, plus $20 to have the sheriff's office serve the notice. It's a more than double-or-nothing gamble. The general consensus of those I've interviewed, off the record, is that I should hire an attorney, whose fees I'd also be responsible for if I lose.
Capt. Robinson of the Orlando Police helped author the city's trespass towing code and was eager to point out what he thought to be a powerful provision in the Florida Statutes, 715.07, 9 (4) for those looking to recover towing fines:
"When a person improperly causes a vehicle to be removed, such person shall be liable to the owner or lessee of the vehicle for the cost of removal, transportation, and storage; any damages resulting from the removal, transportation, or storage of the vehicle; attorney's fees; and court costs."
So I've got a shot at a favorable decision that could return my attorney fees and court costs. The decision will rest on the judge's interpretation of the statutes. Once I file and pay $116 in court fees, I'll get a pretrial hearing scheduled within 35 days. I'll let you know how it goes.