PERILS OF PASO: Grand theft auto?

January 4, 2009
Tow charges in Paso Robles appear to violate state law.

Tow charges in Paso Robles appear to violate state law.



A steady drumbeat of complaints target alleged predatory towing practices by the Paso Robles Police Department and two towing companies, Alliance and Pete Johnson.

Law enforcement, city officials, and reporters have been informed by residents, tourists and shoppers about an explosion of non-consensual tows; inadequately displayed signage, particularly during special events; overly aggressive tow truck drivers; and possible financial motivation on the part of the city and the tow companies.

The actions appear to violate both state law and the city’s own ordinance pertaining to towing and impounding of vehicles.

Eve Devillers and Chantel Engen departed Level Four Restaurant on Pine Street Saturday, December 6, to find the previously packed street devoid of cars. They learned Devillers’ car had been towed even though only one sign was posted, approximately four parking spaces away. The paper sign had blown over in the wind and was unreadable.

“The officer told us, ‘Drunks pull them down and we don’t have the time to put them back up,’” Devillers said, adding they were told by the policeman that approximately 50 cars were towed that night to clear the streets for the Christmas parade.

California Vehicle Code 22651, the code cited by police as authorizing them to tow, prohibits them from removing vehicles “unless signs are posted giving notice of the removal.”

Devillers was charged $370 by the tow company, and an additional $109 in city administrative fees.

“He (the tow yard operator) was swearing and yelling at us,” Engen said. “He said it would cost us a $1,000 if we waited till Monday to pay him.”

Engen, a single mother with no family in the area, said the charges created an extreme financial hardship and ruined her first Christmas with her 3-month-old infant.

Towing charges by companies contracted through the Paso Robles Police Department are regulated by the California Vehicle Code and the city’s Tow Service Agreement, approved by the city council in September 2008.

According to the vehicle code, rates are to be approved by the local highway patrol. In SLO County, recommended rates are between $75 and $85, according to Highway Patrol officer Ty Murray.

Charging a vehicle owner excessive fees is a misdemeanor punishable by not more than three months in jail, and a fine of as much as $2,500.

According to the city’s own Tow Service Agreement, rates charged for police tows “shall be reasonable and not in excess of those rates charged for similar services provided in response to requests initiated by any other public agency or private person.” For police initiated tows, the agreement allows a charge of $45 for regular tows and $60 for “difficult” tows.

Pete Johnson and Alliance Towing both charge $50 per tow when requested by private persons. When tows are initiated by the Paso Robles Police Department, Pete Johnson Towing charges $180 an hour and Alliance Towing charges $210 an hour, in addition to other charges permitted by their contracts with Paso Robles Police Chief Lisa Solomon.

Personnel from both tow companies claim their charges have been approved by the police department. Solomon did not respond to requests for comment.

It took Tiffany Hoffman and Tim Lang more than 10 minutes to find a parking place on December 6 due to the crowded streets of Paso Robles. The couple parked on Park Street at around 4:30 p.m. and walked to Level Four for dinner. When they came out a few hours later, numerous tow trucks were cleaning the street of cars.

“The officer told us that people pull down the signs and police are not responsible for that,” Lang said. “They said we could fight the city’s fees ($109) but not the tow company’s charges ($370).”

Last week, Hoffman and Lang went to a tow hearing where a police volunteer told the couple that a video clearly showed a no-parking sign in front of their car prior to the tow. However, the car in the video did not belong to the couple, and the street in the video was Pine, not Park. The volunteer said he would find the correct tape and get back to the couple.

According to the police log, both Devillers’ and Hoffman’s vehicles were towed from Park Street. However, according to police and tow operator reports, the cars were towed from Pine Street.

“If we had known, we would have never parked there,” Lang said. “We were not trying to push the law. They ruined our Christmas.”

Numerous people allege that the local police department orders tows during special events, such as Mid-State Fair, and uses inadequate signage. Others who live in the vicinity of the fairgrounds lament that they can no longer park near their homes for fear of police ordering their cars towed. (CalCoastNews received numerous complaints during the summer event of vehicles being towed from streets marked on only one end.)

Kevin Mikelonis returned from a week vacation to find his legally parked vehicle had been towed as “abandoned.” He was charged $109 in city administration fees and $330 by Pete Johnson Towing.

“There is nowhere to park in front of my house as I live at the end of a cul-de-sac, and I left my driveway open for my house sitter,” Mikelonis said. “I parked at the bottom of the street where there are no houses out of consideration for my neighbors. I do not think the Paso Robles Police Department spends a great deal of time hunting down cars to tow for fees.”

There may be no letup in the roundup. The city must share parking ticket revenue with the state, but monies received as fees belong entirely to the city.

And Paso Robles is hurting financially. Officials have canceled outside contracts and implemented a layoff prevention plan. As a result, according to police sources, officers working the night shift are pulling double duty: They now dump the trash, buff the floors, vacuum carpets, and swab the toilets.

“We canceled the janitorial contract and catapulted the duties onto existing staff,” said Public Works Director Doug Monn. “They just empty waste baskets. Maintenance crews help with the bathrooms. It was a budget consideration.”

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Member Opinions:

By: cengen on 1/18/09

I was mentioned in this article and I want it to be known to those that claimed we should have seen the signs…we did not drive through Paso and we live in Atascadero. We got off the 101 on 13th and turned onto Park street. Not only where there no large signs posted at the entrance of the street, but there were only a few flimsy paper signs posted that were blown folded over from the wind. The 1st sign was 4 parking spaces away and the street was filled with cars at 4:30 when we arrived so we didn't see ANY. There was no sign on our space and no indications on the street or on the businesses. We didn't even find a sign until our car had been towed. We were going to a "free" wine opening of one of my clients at level 4…so the comment of chalking it up to an expensive night out is maybe easier for someone who can afford it…not a single mother of a baby that was only getting to go out for a couple hours of "adult" time over the holiday! I work very hard and in these tough times that money could have been put to better use stimulating our economy or paying my much needed bills. And further more we didn't think "oh maybe we won't get towed" like one reader stated…if we had seen signs, we wouldn't have parked there and if we had and were towed, then by all means we wouldn't be fighting this we would put our big girl panties on and accept our losses. Neither of us has ever been towed and have no prior violations on our records..we're "good girls!" The fact is there were no visible signs, no one to notify us of the event, and the fee's were excessive for a 10 minute tow! The fact that we had to "request" copies of all the paperwork and were not given any information about contesting these charges like what is normally printed on the back of a ticket, the police department and tow yard putting down that we were parked on Pine st and not Park and then trying to convince our friend that his car was on tape when it was not only NOT his car, but was NOT the street we were parked on, and the horrible treatment we received from the towing operator who also stated the charges would be double by monday, leaves me to believe something scandolous is taking place. All I can say is something stinks in Paso and it's not the sulphur!!!!!

By: MikeKnecht on 1/14/09

My daughter had her car towed during the fair. If memory serves the bill was $380.00 and Pete Johnson towed the car. I would imagine that the crews Pete had working that night could pick up a car, get it to the car lot and get back to the fair in thirty five minutes which is a pretty good piece of change for a little bit of work. What I find interesting is how does Pete Johnson think that anybody who paid that kind of money would ever let a family member or friend buy a car from his dealership. I doubt my daughter ever parks in a tow away zone again but I also doubt that I ever buy a part, let alone a car from Pete Johnson. Maybe he makes enough money towing cars that he doesn't need to sell cars at the dealership. I hope so because getting gouged for that kind of money stays with you.

By: ElGuapo on 1/9/09

There are a couple of points in this article, which clearly lacks factual research, that concern me. I'll be the first to admit complete frustration when my vehicle is towed and I then have to pay the fees. (They can appear to be a bit inflated) At the end of it, my frustration is with myself. Of the times that I have been towed I have found that it is ussually because of my child like thinking such as "They won't tow MY car" or "I'll be back in time" or better yet, I'm just too excited to get to my destination that I move about with blinders. Bottom line is that I am the one resposible and when it's time to pay – I pay.

Now to the December 6th tow aways. These folks must have been moving about with blinders because there were MANY indicators that "something" was going on. There was a HUGE banner on Spring St. at the park indicating the Christmas Parade was going to take place. Local residents also start staking their claim along the parade route. The parade participants (floats) start showing up at around 3pm and if Ms. Hoffman and Mr. Lang were truely driving around for 10 minutes they would have had to have seen this. I agree that the signs along the route can be a bit obscure however they definately are visible as you walk and drive around the downtown quarter. Another note, all the local business (Including Level 4)are aware of all special events. Level 4 could have prevented this as well by simply reminding its patrons of the impending time limit on their parking spaces. Regardless, people need to be more aware of their surroundings and willing to accept responsibility for their mistakes or oversights.

As to the fiscal wows of Paso Robles, I believe that all city governments are in a state of contrition as is the economy and most of our households. The elimination of outside contracts makes excellent fiscal sense. I am a firm believer that most of or all of our governments are in need of a lot of "fat" triming. Having police and other city staff dump their own waste basket doesn't seem unreasonable to me. As a matter of fact SLO did the same thing about 15 years ago.

In conclusion, not all tow aways are warranted (as with Mr. Mikelonis) however I am sure that the overwhelming majority are. As far as Ms. Hoffman and Ms. Deville are concerned they should just chalk it up to an expensive night out at Level 4. Which by the way go hand in hand.

By: Truthbeknown on 1/9/09

As with most stories, there are two sides to each coin. This story is yet another example of a theory looking for a conspiracy.

By: concernedcitizen on 1/8/09

Having been towed numerous times for stupid mistakes like these, I have learned more than I want to know about this type of towing. All companies are regulated by vehicle code section 22651 and I encourage everyone who commented to read it thoroughly, as there are various errors in this article. First error is that the rates are based on the local law enforcement contracted rates so in the city of Paso Robles CHP has nothing to do with the rates, however most tow companies charge the same amount for both chp and local contracts(The contracted rates for CHP range from $180 per hour to $210.00per hour in this tow district, (the article quotes an officer who is apparently not familiar with the tow service agreement). Second point: Anytime a vehicle is towed by law enforcement it is usually a 1 hour minimum and cannot be compared to a a regular tow across town. Rates are based on a port to port basis for all law enforcement calls as there are very strict contractual requirements that are different from a regular commercial call (examples include a maximum of 20 minute response time, towing vehicles without keys and in tight locations)a regular commercial call and a law enforcement call are not "similar" and is the reason for the discrepency. The rate of $45 and $60 in the Paso contract is for a disabled vehicle which the customer requests a tow truck not, for a vehicle impounded by the police department.

Has anyone been to the farmers market in San Luis? well approximately 3-5 cars are towed every thursday night and the owners of these vehicles encounter the same result. (interesting thing is that SLOPD doesn't charge any fees to release the vehicle, the customer can just pick up their vehicle from the towing company and pay the towing charges.)

I can't defend the city saying they properly marked each space and made residents aware of the no parking areas, but based on the facts stated the towing companies did follow the law,according to the vehicle code. The $370 is $180 for the tow $90.00 after hours fee (nights and weekends) and Two days storage at$50.00 (not 2 hours of towing) I would check with the tow company though because the first 24 hours is one day of storage, then it is calender day after that, so there might be an overcharge depending on what time the vehicle is picked up.

By: Black_Copter_Pilot on 1/7/09

I believe with that admission we have the beginnings of a vast CCN conspiracy to manipulate the pulse of Paso.

Please tighten the straps to your tin hats.


By: karen on 1/7/09


We have fixed your quote. I did accidentally leave the word not out. Kevin was one of more than a half dozen tow recipients that complained to CalCoastNews, most of whom felt the police were somewhat culpable.

Karen Velie

By: Panicmanic on 1/7/09

Wonder if the towing companies send donuts to PRPD?

By: HonestyPlanet on 1/7/09

Was it just my computer….or were all of the advertisements in the banner for this article associated with towing companies?

If California law actually limits towing charges (I have no idea), and a towing company over-charged and that's really a misdemeanor, then it would seem that anyone who paid the outrageous fee should file a complaint with the police department, and the District Attorney's office. If you're ignored at the second level, then maybe think about sending a complaint to the Grand Jury. You can probably file a reimbursement claim with the city clerk for the city charges you paid, and if that's rejected…..why not seek a refund by a small claims action against every entity involved…..towing company at least?

If victims filed actions against the towing companies….with proper authority (assuming article is correct)….and judges followed that applicable law, then the practices you complain about would probably (eventually) stop. If people just pay the fines/charges and do nothing more than complain about it….then what does anyone have to lose from continuing the nasty practices….? Wake up people!!!!

By: MyThoughts on 1/6/09

The no park sign in the picture is black and white. I thought no parking curbs and signs are supposed to be red like they are in other cities.

By: Kmikelonis on 1/6/09

I have been mis-quoted in this story. I sent written information to 'tips@…' and stated verbatim – 'I do not think PRPD spends a great deal of time hunting down cars to tow for fees.' This story ommitted the word 'not' from my story which is inaccurate and accusatory of the PRPD. Below is the entire content of the tip I sent in for this story. I have e-mailed 'tips@…' requesting a correction.



Here is a fun one for you to look into.

I just returned from vacation to find my truck missing.

As it turns out, my currently registered and legally parked truck was lawfully towed after being on the street over 72 hours while I was away this past week.

There is nowhere to park my car in front of my house as I live at the end of a cul-de-sac and I leave my driveway open for my housesitter.

Since I only use the truck a couple times a week, I park the truck at the bottom of the street where there are no houses out of consideration for my neighbors street parking needs.

This practice makes my truck a prime candidate for PRPD enforcement to tag and tow the truck (my next door neighbor has a classic VW Squareback in front of their house which is stationary for several weeks at a time) as it looks like it’s out of place.

Now I am not writing to complain about the truck being towed, I did break the law while trying to be a nice guy to my neighbors

What got me tossed today was the fees I had to pay to PJ Chevrolet Towing to get my truck back.

After paying The City of Paso Robles the $109 fine for the parking violation, I went to PJ Chevrolet Towing to retrieve the truck.

The fees at PJ totaled $330.00

That breaks down as:

$180.00 for towing.

$150.00 for 2 ½ days storage ($50 a day).

Last year I had a truck which would not start towed by PJ Chevrolet Towing from this same place that my truck was ordered towed this week.

I paid PJ Chevrolet $95 for that tow.

So maybe SLOUndercover could look into why the rate is double when the PRPD calls PJ to tow a vehicle.

Last night when returning from a week on the East Coast I paid $14 per day to leave my car in a covered garage at the San Francisco airport.

PJ Chevrolet Towing charged me $50 per day to leave my truck in a gravel lot behind the dealership.

PJ Chevrolet Towing is the PRPD impound lot, so this is a real sweetheart deal for them.

While it is a bummer to come home and pay $439 in fees for a $700 truck I use to visit my friends who live on gravel roads in the area, I could afford to pay these fees today, there are many who probably could not.

I really feel for those people who are faced with such fees for what might be their primary car which may have broken down on the street.

This seems like extortion against those who end up in a jam.

I do not think PRPD spends a great deal of time hunting down cars to tow for fees.

In fact, I am certain my truck was towed because it was not parked in front of a home on my street so it looked out of place.

All my neighbors know it’s my truck, and none have ever complained about where its parked since its out of the way of everyone’s homes.

Look into the PR Chevrolet Towing Pricing Structure for towing and storage fees that are related to private parties and those related to PRPD intervention and see what you find.

Call and request quote on a towing a ½ ton Ford pick-up from 113 Encanto Ct. in Paso Robles to say, Wayne’s Tire on Ramada Drive in Paso Robles which is basically across the highway from PR Chevrolet Towing.

Check out the PRPD relationship to PJ and justify the $50 per day fee for dirt lot storage.

Have fun with this one.

By: Merchant on 1/6/09

Although the rates seem out of line I do have to say being a merchant on 12th street where the streets were blocked I did have the police come inside my store looking for customers whos vehicles were parked on the street. We should give them some credit. I'm sure the towing companies want to tow, it is their business.

By: Cindy on 1/6/09

I don't know what happened in Paso during the Christmas parade but it doesn't sound right that these towing company's should be charging more to these unfortunate citizens than what their standard fees are to willing customers. This is extortion and sounds outright immoral if not illegal. I agree with Newsome, make them open their books and prove that they charged honest rates and that it took two hours to tow your car. The average time is 20 minutes maybe 30 minutes if its difficult. In fact the city should investigate this. Did they (pubic officials) enter into a contract with these towing company's with a carte blanche to cheat and extort the citizens?

By: knowthisatascadero on 1/6/09

The merchants of Paso Robles should protest this kind of tactic. Business revenue or police towing revenue?

It is evident that the new police chief is not capable leading the PR police force.

The Christmas parade, she probably wanted it banned also. She didn't want the PD to escort Santa this year either.

Got rid of the car cruise, what will be next on her list of things to go and things to tow?

By: Bluebird on 1/5/09

I was told of a similar experience, described in the article, by a young woman who had attended the Paso Robles Christmas parade. She and her friends drove through an alley to get to the street where she parked along with other cars. There were no "no parking" notices posted at the alley entrances. Later she found out the notices were posted at the beginning of each street. When she came back her car and all the others were gone. She paid the extortion towing fee to get her car which was needed for work. Lacking the cash the charge was put on her credit card and she will be paying it off for the next year. Appealing the ticket isn't an option because of long work hours. Paso has left a bad taste in her mouth. Thanks to CalCoast news for exposing how the city is taking advantage of people who don't have the time, money or expertise to fight city hall.

By: paperboy on 1/5/09

These tow contracts are a rip off in every jurisdiction. My roommate's car was towed from the SLO Airport the Sunday before Christmas. She flew out of SLO to Phoenix the day before and then on to Colorado and didn't return until very late on the Saturday after Christmas.

Her car was towed on Sunday because she supposedly parked in the Budget Rent a Car lot, though she said it was impossible to tell because the whole airport parking lot is under construction and all the signs have been removed.

College towing wanted $630 for the tow and storage. They said it was ordered by the Budget Rent-a-Car manager and constituted a tow off private property, which seems odd considering that it's a municipal airport owned by the county, i.e. taxpayers.

Anyway, when she finally tracked down her vehicle in SLO, she complained bitterly that she parked in one of only two parking spaces left in the entire parking lot and that all the No Parking signs had been taken down. The kid at College towing gave her car back with no charge.

So there are such things as Christmas miracles.

But there is no doubt that towing contracts are a scam and rip off.

By: Panicmanic on 1/5/09

This is total bs.We know where the cops are.DK's anyone?

By: Black_Copter_Pilot on 1/5/09

At least four times a years, for the last few years, I have called the Paso PD to tag cars and trailers that sit for weeks without being moved…… no time were any of these towed, they get tagged and the owners has moved them to storage (I assume).

Seems to me that my calls and others would be a great oppertunity to generate revenues, but, like I said, the owners do remove them.

By: TheWeighmaster on 1/5/09

OK Now I am really confused.

I thought Paso was doing well in the dollar department. They have a Wal mart don't they? Plus what about all the tax money they get from development all over town? Please dont tell me that they invested with EFI.

Didn't a past story report our Police Chief has some money problems herself? Has this spilled over to the City Hall too?

Will you be doing a followup story to explain why our cops are cleaning the floors?

I also heard recently that the Paso Parks & Recreation Dept has no money to fund programs. Can this be verified?

By: InTheKnow on 1/5/09

Sounds like northcounty resident might be a police officer. I have friends who claim lt. Ty Lewis, a good friend of Lisa and a loyal servant, is responcible for numerous posts supporting his boss.

By: northcountyresident on 1/5/09

For whatever its worth, I had dinner at Artisan on the night of the Paso Christmas parade. There were posted signs not to park on the streets. The street was empty except for one car. I watched a city policeman wait for an hour past the posted time, right before the parade began. The officer was going into local businesses trying to find the car's owner so it wouldn't have to be towed. The officer found the owner and the car was moved without incident. I thought it was commendable.

By: Newsome on 1/5/09

Tow companies LOVE police work because no one is there to contest the charges and decline the service.

The tow companies with the city contracts ought to be willing to, or be compelled to, open their books and show that the "service call" on Deviller really took two hours ($370 divided by the $180 hourly rate). If the driver was doing something else during that two hour period — like impounding another car — he was ripping off both Deviller and the other "john," and should be charged for it.

Good work Cal Coast News.