Tow money, Tow Problems

So, you walk out of a business or a restaurant only to find that your car is gone!  Was it stolen? Maybe.  But more likely than not it was towed.  With around 8,000 cars a year getting towed in Pinellas County alone, it’s not an uncommon situation for people to deal with.  At that rate, 22 people-a-day have to deal with a tow truck driver, and it’s not always fun.  So, what is the law for tow truck drivers anyway?  Who regulates them?  And what should you do if your car is improperly towed?

What do you need to know if your car gets towed?

First, you need to know that Florida state law as well as County and City ordinances regulate the towing industry from how you are notified about tow-away zones, to how much the tow truck driver can charge you.  This article will focus on Pinellas County Ordinances, but your County or City may be different.  Be sure to check out the local ordinances that apply to where you live, or more specifically, to the place where your vehicle was towed.

Florida state law applies everywhere within state lines, so let’s start there:

Fla. Stat. §715.07 is the law that deals with towing situations when a car is parked on private property, and it describes a strict set of rules on notice to the vehicle owner as well as how the tow truck driver must operate.

Here are a couple of highlights to that law:

(1) A vehicle cannot be towed more than 10 miles away from the point of removal in Pinellas County, and the tow truck operator must be at the vehicle’s storage site within 1 hour of the phone call request to pick up the car.

(2) The tow truck driver must notify the police within 30 minutes of the tow: the time of removal, where the car is being stored, the make, model, color and license plate number of the vehicle or description and registration as well as the name of the person who reported the vehicle.  If you’re the vehicle owner, remember that the police department must have all of this information should you need to get it later.

(3) The tow truck companies are required to file and keep on record with local police a complete copy of the current rates to be charged for services and they must post a copy at the storage site of this rate schedule.  They must also keep on hand any contracts that allow them to remove vehicles on a regular basis from business properties.

(3) If the vehicle owner catches the tow truck driver while in the process of removing the vehicle, the tow truck operator must stop, and can only charge no more than half of the posted rate for towing.

(4) When the vehicle is redeemed, a detailed receipt must be given to the person redeeming the vehicle (remember that the tow truck driver is required to report to the police all of the details as well).

(5) Tow truck companies are required to exercise “reasonable care” in the removal and storage of the vehicle.

(6) Tow truck drivers cannot waive liability for damages that are noted by the owner at the time of redeeming the vehicle.

Florida State Law NOTICE Requirements:

How do you know if the car was legally towed in the first place? 

If the vehicle is obstructing the normal operation of business or if the vehicle is parked on the street and blocks access to a private driveway, the vehicle may be towed without notice to the driver and without the posting of a tow-away sign. 

Except for property that is right next to and obviously part of a single-family residence or situations where notice is personally given to the owner or person in control of the vehicle, a car cannot be legally towed unless notice is posted.

The notice must comply with the following:

(1) notice must be prominently placed at each driveway access to the property, within 5 feet from the public right-of-way, or one sign for each 25 feet of frontage.

(2) notice must clearly indicate, in letters at least 2 inches that unauthorized vehicles will be towed away at the owner’s expense.  The words “tow away zone” must be included on the sign in 4 inch letters.

(3) the notice must provide the current name and telephone number of the tow truck company.

(4) EXCEPT: a business with 20 or fewer parking spaces need only post a sign that says “Reserved Parking for Customers Only – Unauthorized Vehicles or Vessels Will Be Towed Away at the Owner’s Expense.” in 4 inch letters.

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These are the state laws according to Fla. Stat. 715.07, and they are the minimum requirements for everywhere in Florida, but Counties and Municipalities can go further.  In fact many of them do, most counties regulate the maximum amount of money a tow truck company can legally charge for its services and what information must be included in the receipt.

By law in Pinellas County, FL:

The fixed rate for towing a car under 10,000 lbs is $100, plus $3 per mile when the tow is performed due to trespass or without the vehicle owner’s permission.  Since state law mandates that the car cannot be towed more than 10 miles from the scene, the maximum rate is $130 (assuming that the car is towed 10 miles away).

Note that the rates increase as the weight of the vehicles increases.

Tow Truck drivers cannot charge any additional fees for using special equipment to remove the vehicle. 

Storage fees for cars under 10,000 lbs must be less than $20 per day, and cannot be added until after the vehicle has been in storage for at least 6 hours. 

Tow truck drivers cannot charge more than $35 to remove a “boot” from a vehicle.

Tow truck drivers may also charge an administrative fee of $30 after the first 24 hours if they have filed a notice of lien on the vehicle.

Note that these fees may change from time to time, and this article was written on December 18, 2014. 

Pinellas County also requires tow truck drivers to notify the vehicle owner over the phone: (1) each and every document that must be produced to retrieve the vehicle; (2) the exact charges as of the time of the phone call, and the rates that they will accumulate thereafter; (3) the acceptable methods of payment; and that the vehicle can be picked up within the hour.

Pinellas County also requires the receipt of all charges to include at minimum: (1) the date, time, and location of the tow; (2) the total charges listed individually and specifically; (3) the date and time of payment; (4) and the following disclosure word for word:

IF YOU HAVE A QUESTION OR COMPLAINT, PLEASE CONTACT THE PINELLAS COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE AND CONSUMER SERVICES, 14250 49TH STREET NORTH, 2ND FLOOR, CLEARWATER, FLORIDA 33762. TELEPHONE: (727) 464-6200: (727) 464-6129 (fax)

Tow truck companies are required to keep detailed accounts of information on file and must make it available upon request to law enforcement or code enforcement officers who are assigned to investigate complaints.

NOTE that there are exceptions to these rules, such as if the vehicle is towed at the orders of a law enforcement agency or with the consent of the vehicle owner, or at the direction of a landlord when the tenant has abandoned a vehicle on the rental property.

Click Here for Pinellas County Ordinances

So, What do you do if your car is improperly towed? 

Let’s start with what NOT to do.  First, don’t try and take your car back!  It is a crime for a vehicle owner to remove the vehicle from the tow truck company’s property without making full payment and without the consent of the company.  No it is not “grand theft auto,” you cannot steal your own car, and the tow truck company doesn’t own your car.  What they do have is a legally enforceable lien on the car for the value of their services.  So, in a technical sense, they own a piece of your car in the amount of their services.  According to Fla. Stat. § 713.58, removing a vehicle that has a valid lien on it from the lot is a misdemeanor punishable by $500 fine or a maximum of 90 days in jail.

Not to mention, you may find yourself guilty of trespassing and reckless endangerment among other crimes depending on the circumstances.  Some tow truck drivers do not know the law themselves.  They do not know that they could simply let the vehicle owner drive away, and then have the person arrested later and collect their money.  After all, they have all of the information on hand (they are legally required to anyway).  As a result, violent altercations sometimes ensue.  In Tampa, one such incident occurred in 2006, when a tow truck driver shot and killed someone after a dispute over the legality of the tow.  The vehicle owner is dead, and the tow truck driver is now in prison for 35 years.

So, do not argue with the tow truck driver.  If you feel that you were wrongfully towed, pay the fee and then call an attorney.  According to the law, attorney’s fees may be collected by the winner of the case as well as court costs, so many consumer justice attorneys will help you at no charge – if they feel your case is winnable.

If the tow truck driver refuses to give you a receipt or attempts to overcharge you, call the police and request the information from them.  As stated above, the tow truck company is required to report the details of the incident to the local law enforcement.  You may also request the presence of an officer to oversee the transaction if things are escalating.

Alternatively, if you feel that the tow truck company acted improperly, you may file a complaint with the Office of Consumer Protection.   – http://www.pinellascounty.org/consumer/complaint.htm  Every county or municipality has some type of agency that enforces the ordinances covering the towing industry, so try to find them in your area.

If the tow truck company acted properly and within their requirements by law, but the vehicle was improperly towed due to bad notice, then the person who initiated the tow is liable for the cost of removal, transportation and storage, as well as any damages resulting from the removal transportation or storage of the vehicle, and attorney’s fees and court costs.  That means that tow truck drivers need not fear about getting paid as long as they abide by the law as it applies to them.

[I am not an attorney.  I will not answer any questions that you have pertaining to a legal issue.  Do not rely on this information if you have a legal issue, instead contact a licensed Florida attorney right away.  The information provided above is given freely to help people, and it does not in anyway establish a legal relationship between me, the writer, and you, the reader.] 

 

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