Arlington's chief prosecutor said yesterday that he will ask a Circuit Court judge to reinstate suspended fines against a towing company that continues to overcharge its customers.
Commonwealth's Attorney Richard E. Trodden said the county has received numerous complaints from people that they were charged more than the state cap -- $85 or $95 -- by Frank's Towing and Recovery. Other towing companies also are violating the cap, but "there seems to be a pattern with Frank's Towing," Trodden said.
"It's a consistent problem, and the overcharging of citizens by towing companies is an unfortunate but consistent event," Trodden said. "We have to be able to use the tools that we have to make sure these companies are reined in."
George King, owner of Frank's Towing, said he does not believe that he is breaking the law. He cited a provision of the state code that requires an annual review of state regulations governing a profession or occupation.
The state refuses to consider fees that would reflect fair market value, said King, who charges $95 for towing from residential properties and $120 from commercial properties. "Everybody in the towing industry believes that."
King said that the industry already faces oversight from the private property owners who hire them. "We as an industry are responsible to the property owners, and they oversee us more than the county could wish to," he said.
The Circuit Court hearing is scheduled for Aug. 31.
Arlington County officials have long complained that people are made vulnerable to price gouging by a loophole in a federal law that prohibits local and state governments from exercising strong oversight over tow truck operators.
U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) has scheduled a news conference Monday to announce legislation that would give states more authority to regulate towing companies. County and state officials plan to turn out to show support.
"This is an area that's virtually devoid of regulations," Moran said yesterday. "Without regulations, rogue towers have demanded varied substantial amounts of cash. . . . They have taken advantage of the situation."
County officials said they received 178 complaints in the past fiscal year about towing companies, ranging from overcharging to damaged cars. Mary Alice Gray, of the county's Office of Citizen and Consumer Affairs, said there are 48 open complaints against Frank's Towing and Recovery, most regarding overcharges.
Trodden said that in 2001, King entered into a plea agreement under which a Circuit Court judge suspended $200 fines for the 50 violations against the company, on condition of good behavior.
But in December 2003, Circuit Court Judge Paul F. Sheridan ordered the company to pay a $50 fine on each count after learning that there were more complaints filed against the company, according to court documents. Trodden wants the court to reinstate the rest of the $200 fines.
County officials said towing companies are required to comply with the state cap. Moran's bill would increase the states' ability to oversee other aspects of the tow truck industry, such as method of payment, how far a vehicle can be towed and liability for damages.
Moran said states lost their oversight powers about a decade ago when federal legislation, in effect, limited states' ability to regulate tow truck operations. That same year, Virginia officials introduced legislation that allowed localities to regulate the rate for the tow -- which was $85 or $95 depending on the day and time.
"Right now, the federal law only allows the regulation of rates," said Barbara A. Favola (D), chairman of the Arlington County Board. "With the proposed change, localities will have more oversight."
More oversight would be good news to Wayne D'Angelo, 29, a District resident whose car was towed this year while he was attending a law school class at George Mason University.
D'Angelo said he unwittingly parked in a private lot. He contacted Frank's Towing and went to the lot where his car was impounded. There, he saw a sign citing the regulation that the company could not charge more than $95, but he was told he had to pay $120.
"I protested but was given the ultimatum that I had to pay the $120 or I simply would not get my car back," he said. "I was in no position to negotiate when they had my car behind an eight-foot barbed-wire fence."
After having to walk to a cash machine -- company employees said they wouldn't accept a credit card because the credit card machine was not working -- he retrieved his car, D'Angelo said. "You are left without any type of due process," he said. "They have a captured market, and they treat them as such."