W.L. Lewis parked his pickup outside LaGrave Field in Fort Worth for a DFW Swap Meet. When he left, he couldn’t find his pickup. He thought it had been stolen.
Robert Henson, who was watching, told him what happened. A Bivins Wrecker Service truck towed his pickup and another vehicle to Lone Star Towing.
A Fort Worth police officer offered to drive Lewis to the storage facility. When they arrived, the officer walked inside with Lewis.
“Boys, y’all don’t have any signs out there,” the officer told the crew there, Lewis recalled. The officer was referring to signs warning that illegally parked vehicles could get towed.
“Oh well, they were there,” someone answered.
“Well, you don’t have any signs there now.”
An employee offered Lewis a deal. Instead of paying $293, how about $100?
Lewis wanted his pickup back, and he agreed. But now he’s upset.
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Under state law, before tow operators can snatch a vehicle off private property — called a nonconsent tow — state-regulated warning signs must be posted at the property’s entrance and exit.
Laura Heiser, who works for the towing company and the storage facility that held Lewis’ truck, told me that people kept tearing down the warning signs at the Swap Meet. “If the signage is not up, it’s still a legal tow,” she said. If a tow operator has a contract with a property owner to remove vehicles, all that’s required, she said, is that when the signs are torn down, “we go back and hang them up.”
After the police officer informed the company about the missing signs, “it was our call” about what to do about it, she said. “We told him, just to be fair, that we would charge the guy $100. Legally, we could have charged him the $293. But we cut him a break.”
Maybe so, but Lewis has photographs of the property without signs. Henson told me that he has photos of the tow operator returning that night to rehang the signs.
When I ran the matter past the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, a spokeswoman suggested that Lewis file a complaint.
If he does, he has a decent chance of getting some action. The department has regulated tow companies, tow truck drivers and vehicle storage facilities since 2007, and the results are noticeable.
“TDLR has everyone in the industry pretty scared,” said Jess Horton, executive director of Southwest Tow Operators in Dallas.
In the past 17 months, the agency has revoked 21 licenses from tow company operators, vehicle storage facilities and their employees. Even more telling, it has issued $2.6 million in penalties in the towing and storage industry since late 2008. Recent penalties average about $1,700. That’s a lot of little penalties spread across the industry.
Jeanette Rash, the government affairs director for the Texas Towing & Storage Association, said those millions of dollars in fines represent one-fourth of all penalties assessed by the Department of Licensing and Regulation, which regulates 29 occupations and industries, from cosmetologists to electricians to auctioneers.
There’s no question that the state’s new regulatory system is strong, Rash said. But the law is a “little bitty, nit-picking law,” she said.
“A lot of the fines are for paperwork and administrative errors,” she said. The law is specific in what has to be on an invoice or a tow ticket, and that has little to do with protecting the public, she said.
A bill in the Texas Legislature (Senate Bill 1371), which was supported by the industry, would have trimmed the state’s ability to fine companies and individuals for “technical errors, stuff that is nonintentional,” Horton said. He maintained that it wouldn’t harm the licensing department’s core mission. That bill died in a committee.
But some of those technical errors are what allow consumers who believe they were improperly towed to fight back and win.
Under state law, someone like Lewis who is angry about a nonconsent tow can ask for a hearing before a justice of the peace, who decides whether there is probable cause for a tow. The vehicle owner can also file a complaint with the state.
The licensing department sent me a list of the top 10 violations for both towing and storage facilities. Many are technicalities involving paperwork errors. Those might seem minor to the industry, but to a consumer facing a big tow and storage bill, they provide a measure of hope.
If a vehicle owner believes that an improper tow has occurred, the best advice from The Watchdog is to research the state towing law to see whether the tow complies with all those technicalities.
The highest fee anyone can charge for a tow under a new state cap that took effect in September is $250. That doesn’t include storage fees. That’s a lot of money for most people.
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Here, according to Texas government records, are the top reasons why a tow is not legal. See if your problem matches one of these, and then use it to fight back.
1. Respondent charged a towing fee that was not on its published list of non-consent towing fees, or authorized charges not directly related to towing a vehicle.
2. Respondent failed to file a nonconsent towing fee schedule with the Department by January 31st of each year.
3. Respondent failed to ensure that nonconsent tow tickets contained the name and certificate number of the tow truck company which performed the tow, or failed to provide an owner or an owner’s representative with a tow ticket.
4. Respondent operated a towing company without the required license.
5. Respondent operated a tow truck without obtaining a towing operator license
6. Respondent failed to provide an owner or operator with written notice of their rights.
7. Respondent charged a nonconsent tow fee that is greater than the fee listed on the schedule supplied to the Department.
8. Respondent failed to maintain liability and cargo insurance or failed to notify the Department of a change in insurance.
9. Respondent performed a non-consent tow of an unauthorized vehicle other than when allowed by law.
10. Respondent failed to provide the consumer with the address and telephone number of the person who authorized the tow.
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Send towing complaints to the Texas Department of Licensing & Regulation. www.license.state.tx.us. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. 1-800-803-9202.
Read the state towing laws by searching online for Texas Occupations Code Chapters 2303 and 2308.
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