Dealing with illegally parked cars on your property

December 7, 2012

If you own a condo or a townhouse and a stranger leaves his car in your assigned parking spot, what can you do?

Parking in all corners of the Washington metropolitan area, including neighborhoods where residents park on the street, is at a premium. Drivers will often park their car illegally. You — as property owner — can have the car removed.

But you must do it within the law to avoid, in some cases, being hit with some stiff penalties.

Maryland, the District and Virginia have different approaches to the problem. Here’s a look at the nuances of each jurisdiction.

In October, Maryland changed its transportation code to clarify the law regarding people who park illegally in a community association parking lot.

Associations with more than three common area parking spaces must post signs alerting drivers that their cars can be towed. The signs must be at least 24 inches high and 30 inches wide and must be posted so that at least one sign is clearly readable from each parking area in the lot as well as at the entrance to the property.

The signs must summarize all parking restrictions, indicate that violating vehicles may be towed at the car owner’s expense, and list the phone number that is answered at all hours of the day and night by someone who can tell the driver where his car was taken and how to redeem it.

Homeowners at non-association residences can call the police and have the car ticketed. The owner can arrange for a private towing company to remove the car, but in all cases, the police must be notified of the following: the name of the towing service as well as the make, model, year (if known) and license plate number of the towed vehicle. Additionally, the police must be given the address from where the car was towed, the time of the towing and the storage site where the vehicle will be stored.

If the law is violated, the property owner can be sued by the owner of the vehicle for actual damages as well as triple the amount paid to the towing company. If the homeowner is charged with and convicted of violating the towing law, he is subject to a fine of not more than $500 or imprisonment of not more than two months — or both.

The District’s towing law applies to all private properties. The police must be called and — if applicable — issue a parking ticket. Once that is done, either the police or the private property owner can arrange for a private towing company.

However, before the vehicle is removed, the towing company must provide a lot of information to the District Department of Public Works (DPW), including the name of the tow truck operator; details about the vehicle to be towed; the name and address of the person requesting the tow; the reason for the tow and the parking ticket number; as well as the address where the vehicle can be reclaimed. DPW will then issue a towing control number for each individual tow.

Drivers who cannot find their vehicles can call the District’s Towing Control Dispatch Center (202-541-6083) to find out whether their car has been removed. If so, they can go to the District’s Web site to determine where the car is. There is a “Towed Vehicle Locator” form, which can be found by searching “DC towing locator” on the site.

In general, similar requirements apply in Virginia. Community associations must post signs (in Fairfax County they must be 18 inches high and 12 inches wide), and contain the international towing symbol. The sign must include the phone number of the appropriate government agency that regulates and enforces the parking and towing regulations. In Fairfax County, it’s the Department of Public Safety Communications; in Arlington, it’s the county police. Owners of single-family and two-family residences are not required to post any such signage.

The Commonwealth of Virginia also has a Board of Towing and Recovery Operators, whose purpose is to protect the public “by setting standard of qualification, training, and experience for those who seek to represent themselves to the public as towing and recovery professionals.”

Starting in January, a new Division of Consumer Counsel in the Office of the Virginia Attorney General will serve as a clearinghouse for receiving and investigating consumer towing complaints.

Already on the Web site, hundreds of consumer complaints are posted: “I was parked legally but they towed me anyway.” “I just got to my car before it was towed, but the tow truck operator did not give me a break.” “The towing company insisted on cash only before I could get my car back.”

If a car has been parked illegally on your single-family home or a multi-unit condominium, make sure that you learn the rules in your jurisdiction. If you are the board president or property manager of a community association, you must make absolutely sure that the tow company you use is in complete compliance with local as well as state law. If you have a contract with a local towing company, insist on including a provision requiring it to indemnify and hold the association harmless if the towing company acted outside the scope of the law and the association is sued.

Virginia, for example, has enacted what is referred to as a “predatory towing” law. This law, which created the towing board previously mentioned, is aimed at preventing the many abuses that are the subject of the consumer complaints.

Tow companies cannot charge beyond the statutory fee (which ranges between $125 and $150) and must release vehicles about to be towed if the owner arrives, and can then only charge up to $25. Of significance, the towing operator must contact the local law enforcement on every towing operation in which the company is involved.

So if you’re dealing with an illegally parked car on your property, know what you can and cannot do in your jurisdiction.

Benny L. Kass is a Washington lawyer. This column is not legal advice and should not be acted upon without obtaining legal counsel. For a free copy of the booklet “A Guide to Settlement on Your New Home,” send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Benny L. Kass, 1050 17th St. NW, Suite 1100, Washington, D.C. 20036.

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