Authorities in Prince George's and Arlington counties are cracking down on two truck operators who cruise commercial and apartment parking lots and tow away large numbers of cars.
Because of a growing number of complaints from outraged motorists, the Prince George's County Council is considering legislation requiring tow truck operators to get special licenses and the Arlington prosecutor has ruled illegal towing companies' long-standing practices of cruising private parking lots looking for illegally parked cars.
Many of the upset motorists were parked in violation of posted rules. But they say that those rules are enforced in a way that results in needless aggravation to motorists and excessive profits for tow truck operators.
The objects of the complaints are the private tow truck operators hired by commercial property owners and apartment managers to enforce the rules on their parking lots.
There are some horror stores - in Prince George's particularly - of cars towed from legal spaces, of impoundment lots in remote locations open by appointment only, of towing fees that vary from $35 to $55 depending on the make of car, according to county officials.
And there are occasional dramatic confrontations. One occurred when WTOP-TV reporter Andrea Mitchell encountered a shotgun-toting tow truck operator while filming a report on tow truck operators in Prince George's, where some have been accused of towing away cars for infractions as minor as having a wheel touch a white line on an adjacent parking space.
"In 10 years I have never done (any story) that got a bigger reaction," said Mitchell.
And complaints like that of Deborah McKinney, a Zerox Corp. marketing specialist in Rossyln, are not uncommon.
"I went in to call on a client in a building behind" an Arlington restaurant, recalled McKinney, whose car has been towed twice from Rossyln in less than a year. "I pulled into the restaurant parking lot because I didn't want to pay a garage and O knew I wouldn't be there long.
"When I came back 20 minutes later my car was gone. It had been towed to Georgetown, and it took three hours and $35 to get it back. I was fuming. How did they know I wasn't going to that office building to bring clients there for lunch?"
Local officials outside Arlington and Prince George's counties say they have had no recent problems with towing abuses.
In both Arlington and Prince George's, apartment managers, property owners and truck operators defend towing practices by saying that towing is a last-resort method for dealing with parking congestion, abandoned cars and tenants who say they can't find parking spaces.
"It's carte blanche for the towing companies," said Rodney Brewer, an investigator in the Prince George's County state's attorney's office. Brewer noted that the situation has steadily worsened following enactment of a law several years ago requiring apartment managers to keep fire lanes clear of vehicles.
"It's been a constant thorn in our side, particularly at the Arlington Towers (apartment complex)," one Arlington police official said of the increasing volume of complaints from motorists whose cars have been towed from lots in Rossyln and Crystal City.
Part of the reason abuses have increased sharply in Prince George's Brewer said, is that a large number of apartment complexes fail to provide adequate parking. Last year, he said, as many as 1,000 cars per month were towed from private property, sometimes to impoundment lots outside the county.
Tow truck operators also have assumed police powers, Brewer said. When county license stickers expired last March 31 at midnight, truck operators" went nuts. They started towing people like crazy because they didn't have new stickers," Brewer said. Prince George's County police were under orders to grant people without stickers a few days leeways, Brewer said.
"The situation is so unfair," Brewer asserted. "You have to listen to some really pathetic stories from people who live from paycheck to paycheck and don't have $55 to hand over, so they give the two truck operator title to the car and go out and finance a new one."
Stanley Walcek is the attorney for Branch Avenue Towing in Forestville, which has contracts with several apartment complexes. "What happens is this," Walcek said. "All apartment complexes have rules and regulations. As soon as they start enforicng them, people start complaining.If a guy is patroling a project he's got no way of knowing if someone's parked there just for a few seconds or all night."
Several Prince George's County apartment managers apparently are disgusted by what one called the "avariciousness" of towing firms and have terminated contracts.
Alysa Fitschen, manager of Iverson Towers in Hillcrest Heights, said she recently canceled an agreement when she learned that a tenant's car had been towed while parked briefly in a loading zone. The woman was packing her car in preparation for a trip and had told security guards and truck operators that she would move when she finished.
In Prince George's County, legislation was introduced last week to license the county's tow truck operators. A county law that will go into effect March 1 requiring truck operators to obtain written permission before towing has been criticized as unrealistic and a violation of a state law.
Investigator Brewer said he favors legislation requiring that police or fire marshals authorize all towing.
Last week, Arlington Commonwealth's Attorney William S. Borroughs said that longstanding practice by towing companies of cruising private parking lots at a request of property owners is illegal.
Based on his interpretation of state law, Burroughs said, decisions to tow cars must be made indivudually by an apartment manager, rather than in a "blanket manner" by a tow truck operator.
Burroughs' ruling has been criticized by some building owners and tow truck operators. Tom Murphy, owner of Murphy's Towing Service in Arlington, which has an exclusive contract with Arlington Towers and other large commercial and apartment complexes, said he planned to challenge Burroughs' ruling in court. Murphy discussed his business in the small office of his combination three-acre impoundment and airport parking lot south of Crystal city.
I do try and be fair," he said, disassociating himself from the practices of some Prince George's County operators. "We wait a half hour (after spotting an illegally parked car) before we tow from Arlington Towerw."
"I very much try to determine that there's a real need or I won't service the lot," he said. "I would be the first to agree that getting your car towed is a real bummer. But (unauthorized) cars are trespassers."
Murphy estimated that he earnes about $72,000 annually from contracts like Arlington Towers which account for less than a third of his business. Since Burroughs' ruling, Murphy said, he has suspended towing from Arlington Towers but plans to resume shortly.