By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
Zero tolerance never gets closer to zero than in privately administered towing policies.
And the practice is spreading like a virus. As fast as new middle-class residential communities spring up in South Florida, tow companies make deals with homeowners' associations, says Eugene Reavis, a tow investigator for Palm Beach County. The new developments offer a virtual smorgasbord for voracious tow trucks.
The homeowners' associations, not keen on dealing with towing issues, tend to sign over the rights to tow their communities faster than you can say beauty sleep, Reavis says. And once they've done it, any minor violation is fair game for a tow company to make a quick Benjamin.
To understand how towing companies have gained the rights to terrorize South Florida neighborhoods, it helps to know a little about the law and how it got that way. The Florida towing industry has always operated in a fuzzy area between uprightness and shadiness, but recent legislation and litigation have helped pave the way for an escalation of abuse and extortion, particularly in Broward County, authorities concede.
Until 1999, Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties all required that tow companies register with them and obtain licenses. Then a U.S. appellate court decision restricted cities and counties in how they could regulate tow companies. No more registering or obtaining licenses. The counties didn't rescind their regulations quickly enough, and all three were hit with a class-action lawsuit from several towing companies. The settlement cost the counties more than $343,000.
Then in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the appellate court's ruling, though not everybody was quick to reinstate the regulations. Dade and Palm Beach counties cautiously rewrote their regulations, but Broward, apparently still sore from the costly settlement, opted to stick with its minimal restrictions.
For now, all Broward can do is set the maximum rate limits that tow companies can charge for tows from private property and get your money back if you're overcharged. Of course, you must be able to prove this with a receipt. And it can take about a year for you to get back the $20 or so that have been gouged out of you.
In any South Florida county, if you believe you were towed illegally, you must take it to court. If your property was damaged or something was stolen out of your car during the tow, you have to take it to court.
The situation often leaves bereaved motorists feeling violated by tow truck operators, with no viable recourse, no mode of complaining except through a weak, poky civil court process. Contributors to online motorist chatrooms sometimes talk wistfully about a constitutional challenge to the system as a violation of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure. But so far, no one appears to have mounted a serious legal challenge.
A New Times inquiry of the South Florida office of the American Civil Liberties Union brought a brusque e-mail reply from Assistant Director of Communications Alexandra Bassil: "If there is a sign warning drivers that their car may be towed in the areas you mention there are no violations of the 4th amendment."
Perceptions of the towing industry have sunk so low that even the Professional Wrecker Operators of Florida — a lobbying group of about 500 towing companies — has begun to call for more oversight. The organization was trying to save its reputation while weeding out "gypsy" companies that were breaking laws and stealing business. The problem, says Mike Seamon of the operators group, is the ease with which anybody, regardless of his ethics, can enter the industry.
"It doesn't require much — just a truck," he says. "And lots of people think it's a good way to make a living."
The fuzziness of the laws are part of the problem too. When motorists don't think the law will give them a fair shake, they're more likely to take it into their own hands.
Some, like University of Florida football player Tony Joiner, have tried to steal their cars back from lots. Joiner was arrested on a felony burglary charge after he tried to retrieve his girlfriend's car from a Gainesville tow company. The charges were later dropped.
Others have gotten violent, to which Chattanooga's Wall of the Fallen — a memorial to tow truck drivers killed in the line of duty — can attest.
And, of course, the violence swings both ways.
In 2003, a 16-year-old who appeared to be working at Beach Towing on Dade Boulevard attacked a man who had come to claim his car. Nasseer Idrisi had entered the office angry about the tow, but that didn't give Manuel Cabrera the right to break his nose and fracture his skull and right leg. Idrisi, 43, sued and won $975,000 in civil court. Cabrera pleaded guilty to aggravated battery.
On the first winter-cold night in South Florida, the wind whips down Wallis Road in West Palm Beach. A chunky, smile-shaped moon glows over the heavily pocked back street, and a dog's plaintive yowl erupts in the distance. Headlights of passing cars infrequently illuminate piles of trash and abandoned tires that apparently nobody in this neighborhood of warehouses and construction equipment feels like cleaning up.