PERILS OF PASO: Grand theft auto?
January 4, 2009
FIRST IN A SERIES
By KAREN VELIE and DANIEL BLACKBURN
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.”