Police often failing to keep tow companies in check

10Investigates looks into whether local law enforcement has been keeping sufficient control on towing services.

TAMPA BAY, Florida – 10Investigates has spent months combating predatory towing practices around greater Tampa Bay. But local law enforcement agencies haven’t always been doing their part.

An analysis of violations and arrests stemming from the state’s towing statutes {F.S.S. 715.07} indicates most law enforcement officers assumed towing complaints were “civil issues,” even when they may involve misdemeanor – or in some cases, felony – criminal violations.
 
10Investigates has found that poor enforcement enabled some tow companies to routinely take advantage of consumers through overcharging and aggressive towing. Their practices have given a bad name to the entire industry, which typically provides important services to owners of vehicles and property.
 
 
The bad news for drivers is that disputes over whether a vehicle was allowed to be on private property or whether a parking pass was displayed properly are civil issues, with small claims court acting as the primary legal option for resolution. But regulation over legally-mandated signage and other towing requirements belongs to local law enforcement.  
 
Police departments and sheriff’s offices are also often responsible for enforcing local towing ordinances, which typically include consumer protections like maximum towing charges.
 
But when 10Investigates called the non-emergency dispatch line of a dozen of Tampa Bay’s largest law enforcement agencies, only three asked additional questions to determine if a criminal violation had occurred. The rest all immediately suggested there was nothing law enforcement could do because towing was a “civil issue.”
 
“That’s not true,” Stetson University law professor Darryl Wilson said. “Law enforcement ... should (enforce towing laws). They’re the only ones who can.”
 
 
Only a handful of local agencies have any records of citations or arrests under the state’s towing statute in the last three years, even though 10Investigates has documented extensive signage and overcharging violations in nearly every community.
 
Deputies in Manatee County, where aggressive towing and overcharging have gone largely unregulated in recent years, didn’t realize towing complaints could result in criminal charges, according to Sheriff Brad Steube. He told 10Investigates he “took a closer look” at F.S.S. 715.07 and has since opened up several towing investigations.
 
“Obviously, based on what we know now, we’re going to treat it a lot differently than we have in the past, because there appears to be a problem,” Steube said.
 
The 10Investigates questions prompted the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) to issue a memo to all deputies, reminding them that towing complaints “are not always strictly civil in nature,” as well as a letter to local towing companies warning them that failure to comply with some state towing laws "could result in criminal prosecution for a third degree felony, with a maximum punishment of five (5) years in prison and a $5,000 fine."
 
MCSO is also seeking new complainants to advance any active towing investigations.
 
10Investigates continues to push for more consumer protections in the towing industry with an investigation into Tampa and Hillsborough County airing Tuesday night at 11 p.m.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:
9/21/16: 10Investigates prompts more Hillsborough towing changes
9/20/16: Pinellas adopts anti-DUI towing rules
8/22/16: Morgan & Morgan seeking class action over parking, towing
8/9/16: Drastic new towing measures proposed in Pinellas
7/11/16: More towing refunds coming
6/27/16: 10Investigates busts more bad tow practices
6/2/16: Tampa advances drastic mesaure to fight DUI
6/1/16: Do International Plaza parking policies encourage DUI?
5/10/16: Tampa downplays Ybor towing troubles, withholds public records
5/5/16: Tow trucks overcharge, while law enforcement looks other way
4/26/16: Pasco approves anti-DUI towing ordinance
4/13/16: Another case of predatory towing in Tampa
3/29/16: Pinellas commissioners consider anti-towing ordinance
3/17/16: Tampa to crack down on predatory towing outside bars
2/25/16: Can Tampa Bay invent new ways to discourage DUIs?
2/24/16: Pasco now considering copying Tampa's ordinance
2/16/16: Hillsborough moves toward better tow laws
2/10/16: Pinellas officials want tow truck protections too
2/9/16: Refunds for tow victims, as Hillsborough eyes amnesty law
2/9/16: EDITORIAL: Other cities should copy Tampa
2/8/16: Tampa council calls for immediate tow fixes
2/7/16: Tow trucks penalizing drinkers who don't drive
1/25/16: Confronting predatory towing & how to get a refund if you're towed illegally
1/18/16: Failure to "move over" puts tow operators in danger

Find 10Investigates' Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips confidentially to npransky@wtsp.com.

(© 2016 WTSP)


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