We've all done it. You need to run a short errand, and the only available parking spot is in a restricted lot. So you take a gamble; thinking you'll only by five minutes, surely a tow truck driver won't catch you. Four minutes later, you're back, but your car is gone – hauled off by a contracted towing company.
The practice of patrol towing – illegal in some states – is called "predatory towing" by its critics and it is widespread, with the state Department of Justice receiving nearly 200 towing-related complaints in 2006.
Now one local politician has come up with a remedy.
Sen. Avel Gordly, I-NE/SE Portland, is the sponsor of three bills that seek to regulate this type of "instantaneous towing."
One bill, SB 431, could end the practice of patrol towing on private property, said Sean Cruz, legislative aide to Gordly. According to Cruz, the measure would require property owners or their agents to give written permission on every vehicle being towed and would restrict towing cars with expired tags.
The legislation would take the decision-making out of the hands of those who stand to make the money — the commissioned tow truck drivers — and put more responsibility on property owners, Cruz said.
"We want to end a practice that is illegal in other states," he said.
Currently, property owners can contract with tow companies to allow 24-hour towing of vehicles that are improperly parked, have expired tags or don't have a properly displayed permit.
The state legislature will continue hearings this week on several pieces of draft legislation aimed at regulating Oregon's towing industry, with a work session scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 15. A final vote on the amended bills has not yet been scheduled.
Patrol towing complaints presented to Gordly's office vary in circumstance, but they all draw one conclusion — if a third party had to sign off on the tow, it probably wouldn't have happened. Cruz said he also wants public hearings held.
"We want people to come to the capital to tell their stories on the record," he said.
Gordly's aides have heard many stories about apartment residents being towed from their own lots, an action that would typically result in a parking ticket instead of an expensive and time-consuming trip to the tow truck lot.
The complaints have also spurred the state's Department of Justice into action.
The Department of Justice-sponsored bill, SB 116, would place more regulations on towing practices, but wouldn't end the practice of patrol towing. Among the many provisions in the draft legislation, SB 116 would allow vehicle owners to retrieve personal property out of a towed vehicle, place tighter rules on owner notification and prohibit the practice of exchanging free services for tow contracts.
But not everyone is on board with Gordly's legislation. Some tow truck company owners say banning patrol towing goes too far.
According to the owner of Sergeants Towing, Steve Preston, a restriction on patrol towing would be disastrous for property owners and responsible drivers. Preston says he does support some regulation on an industry that has been tainted by a few "bad apples" and has played an active part in supporting parts of SB116.
"There are pirates out there," Preston said. "It's those companies that brought about SB 116."
Despite a cavalcade of towing horror stories posted on the Web and presented by Gordly's office, Preston said many people who complain actually were improperly parked. His drivers take pictures of each tow, and more often than not, a contested tow is dropped once a vehicle owner realizes the tow was legal.
"A couple hundred dollars is a good incentive to lie," he said.
While many citizens feel wronged when a vehicle is towed mere minutes after they've parking in a restricted lot, Preston said the logistics of requiring property owners to sign off on each tow would give vehicle owners a free pass to park on private property. He says detailed contracts between property owners and tow companies can reduce the number of improper tows.
Marian Gaylord, Portland's towing coordinator, believes most towing companies are honest, but said putting the level of decision-making on a person not financially motivated would reduce the number of unethical tows from private lots.
Another work group will convene on Feb. 15 with lawmakers, members of the tow, insurance industry, property owners, and Department of Justice officials.
Cruz said Gordly's office is trying to establish a more efficient appeals system for wrongful tows. The senator also plans to hold a public hearing and invite members of the public to testify about the towing industry.