TAMPA, Florida -- Following 10Investigates' continued reporting on tow trucks that break the law, along with the lack of oversight from local regulators and law enforcement, the Tampa Police Department is instructing officers to start taking reports from drivers who call in with towing complaints that could be criminal.

Reviews of citizen complaints and nearly a dozen interviews indicate TPD officers - like many other law enforcement agencies - frequently dismiss tow truck problems as "a civil issue," even though state statute 715.07 provides for criminal charges - some felonies - for violations.

"We need to do a better job to make sure we're all on the same page," said Tampa Police spokesperson Steve Hegarty. "Our officers need to know when it's a civil matter and when it's a felony and we can get involved."

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After 10Investigates brought repeat wrecker violations to the attention of county officials and the Tampa Police Department, the county began to rewrite its ordinances and TPD's attorney issued a memo to all officers instructing them to fully-document the problem and to direct-file the case with the state attorney's office.

Towing companies in Hillsborough County used to be regulated by the Public Transportation Commission, but since it was dissolved in late 2017, there has been little oversight over the industry.

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Monday, 10Investigates told the story of drivers who had been the victim of overcharging and other violations. All of them reported calling the police and being told their complaints were "civil issues," rather than the criminal violations state statute 715.07 specifies. It's a misunderstanding among many law enforcement agencies that 10Investigates has identified before.

TPD says it has two detectives looking into the specific violations 10Investigates documented recently, and their report will likely end up with State Attorney Andrew Warren, who emailed a statement to 10Investigates:

“Our focus is protecting the community from predatory business practices. Operators who are knowingly breaking the law to shake-down customers will be held accountable. By partnering with TPD to prosecute these offenses, we know we can reduce how often they occur.”

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"We're going to enforce the law," Hegarty said. "We just need to be real clear what the law is so our officers know what the law is."

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office was not able to identify any recent cases where they had filed any tow-related charges, but the Manatee County Sheriff's Office had recently stepped up their enforcement, filing charges related to 715.07 against a local wrecker operator in March.

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

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