Predatory towing thriving in Provo

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Provo City continues to grapple with its relationship with local towing companies. Police and court documents suggest that despite efforts by Provo Mayor John Curtis to curb disputes with towing companies, motorists continue to be towed and booted in Provo. Even with the towing industry being curbed their business practices are still a subject of controversy.

Provo as college town boasts a large student population. BYU provides a number of policies to help manage students on and off campus. Campus police regulate parking on campus property, and allows for an appeals process that is made readily available to students. The BYU off-campus housing office regulates what housing options are BYU approved, and provides a conflict resolution process to aid students with possible problems. Parking on BYU off-campus housing however is regulated strictly by the private sector. These companies are required by law to inform local law enforcement of the location and an explanation for each vehicle they tow.

According to Provo Police Records in 2013, at least 3,641 vehicles were towed in Provo. Using the state maximum charge of $175 per tow this industry made about $637,175 excluding processing fees and taxes in Provo alone. After the city council took action at the end of 2013, the towing industry took an expected hit. Towing 893 vehicles fewer than the year before. From January 1st to April 6th, 2015 Provo Police dept. has in over 840 tows on record.

Seven towing companies are licensed in Provo. Of these, three share the same business address: Amber’s Towing, Express Towing, and Knight’s Parking Enforcement. According to a driver for Express Towing, who identified himself as Matt, all three companies are owned by the same person. Furthermore, Matt said the company has plans to expand in Provo and Spanish Fork. Online searches for the three companies lead to the same contact: Derek Hable.

Towing can occur in one of two ways: either a property owner or the police can call a towing company, requesting that a vehicle be removed, or towing companies can find vehicles in violation of posted parking regulations on their own. Because some towing companies have been known to offer incentives for employees to tow cars, residents have complained to the city that tow truck drivers are predatory, targeting student housing near BYU.

Under pressure from the mayor, who claimed predatory towing had become a public relations problem for the city, the Provo City Council in late 2013 voted unanimously to crack down on towing companies that removed vehicles without the authorization of properties owners. The new ordinance required that tow truck drivers be required to photograph the vehicle in violation and, if the towing company has located a vehicle in parking violation on its own, it must obtain permission from the property owner.

However, on this point, there appears to be some ambiguity or confusion. While some motorists understood the new Provo ordinance to require permission from property owners for each specific parking violation, property owners may also arrange for towing by contract. Mike Lamont, owner of University Parking Enforcement told Fox 13 in late 2013 that he had “over 300” contracts in Provo.

On March 8, 2015, a car owner called Provo Police when Express Towing arrived to remove his vehicle from a parking lot at the Provo Towne Square. Upon questioning the tow truck driver, police discovered that Express Towing had an email from the property manager, giving the company permission to tow vehicles. However, upon further investigation, the police found the email was generated automatically when the tow truck driver emailed a photograph of the vehicle to the property manager. Police contacted Kathryn Allen, the manager of the complex, who said that although she did not specifically see Express Towing’s emailed request to tow the vehicle in question, she wanted “any and all” vehicles in violation to be towed. When questioned about generating automated email responses to Express Towing, Allen told police “How am I supposed to be available at all hours of the night?”

Towing companies were not happy with the Provo ordinance. One such owner, Mike Lamont, of University Parking Enforcement, told Fox 13 on December 17, 2013: “This legislation is unreasonable and inappropriate” and “violates property owners’ constitutional rights.” Lamont had already tangled with the city in court. Lamont failed to appear in court in July 2008 to face a charge of unlawfully towing a vehicle. A summons was issued to compel Lamont’s appearance in September 2008. A plea deal was reached the following month and the case was dismissed. Lamont was charged once again in April 2011 for unlawful towing. In October 2011 the court agreed to hold Lamont’s plea in abeyance, during which time he was ordered to obey all laws, as well as pay court costs and fines. There is no note of the amount of any such court costs or fines, but Lamont did pay a $50 fee for the abeyance plea—substantially less than the average car owner pays when booted or towed.

Of all the owners of Provo-based towing companies only one has come under fire by the city for business and driving practices. Michael Lamont paid $210 fine after pleading no contest to texting while driving charge.

Lamont’s company found itself in court again for a small claims case in January 2015. University Parking Enforcement was ordered to pay the plaintiff $250 plus interest and $87.50 in court costs for wrongfully towing a car.

According to Utah State law, (R909-13 Maximum Non-Consent Non-Police Generated Towing Rate) tow companies must release vehicle for half the total price if confronted by the vehicle’s owner before leaving the site of the violation—so-called “drop fees”.

The problem is not unusual for cities that host universities. For example, state legislators in Ohio curbed towing fees because of predatory towing near Ohio University and Ohio State University. According to the Columbus Dispatch, the state adopted rules similar to those adopted by Provo, such as requiring tow truck drivers to photograph vehicles in violation, and allowing for drop fees. Similarly, Texas legislators in 2014 ruled that motorists who were towed from the University of Texas campus in Austin are owed compensation. Austin television station KXAN reported that lawmakers were deluged with complaints because, it was determined, parking signs warning of the risk of towing were not sufficiently clear.

What is in store for Provo and their towing industry is still to come. However many are anxious for an even greater change.

 

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