Local attorney Melody McAnally got a very unwelcome present on her birthday last June.
She celebrated her big day with dinner at Three Angels Diner on Broad Avenue, and all was going well until she walked out of the restaurant. Her car, which had been parked at the Granite & Marble Plus lot next door, had vanished.
McAnally had parked in that lot many times before, and she'd never noticed the "no parking" signs. The business was closed for the day, so she assumed it was safe to park there.
"On the fence close to the [business'] building, there are signs. But I didn't notice those until it was too late," McAnally said.
Those signs indicated that cars in violation of the business' parking rules would be towed by PB&J Towing. McAnally called PB&J, and, sure enough, they had her car. It was a Friday night, and PB&J would not release her car until the next day. She was given a one-hour window, between noon and 1 p.m. on Saturday, to pick it up.
When she arrived at PB&J, a large crowd of people was gathered outside the company's downtown lot. Many had been towed from Broad Avenue, but some had been towed from other locations. The people weren't allowed inside the building to wait, and many were angry.
"There were people in line, threatening to kill this guy who was working. And he was threatening to shoot them right back. I felt certain there were guns on people all around me," McAnally said. "It was nuts, like another world. And there was nothing I could do but sit and wait and hope guns weren't drawn."
She says she was charged a couple hundred dollars, which the company would only accept in cash, to retrieve her vehicle, and when she asked for a receipt, the man working scribbled what she paid on a piece of scratch paper.
"He gave me a lame excuse that he didn't have time to go in and get a receipt, so I didn't get an itemization. I never got an explanation of what I was paying for," McAnally said.
McAnally's negative experience retrieving her towed vehicle isn't unusual. Memphis city councilman Harold Collins has heard similar complaints about a handful of towing companies. In November, he sponsored a city ordinance aimed at regulating the entire local towing industry.
"We found out there were only two or three companies that were doing the bad stuff, but we couldn't just deal with them," Collins said. "We had to deal with everybody."
The ordinance, which passed in November, regulates storage fees, requires drivers to obtain a city permit, institutes drug testing and background checks for drivers, and requires that tow drivers get authorization from the Memphis Police Department (MPD) before towing a vehicle.
Although notifying the police is also required by state law, some companies are claiming the city rules are stricter than what the state requires. Some even claim the city requirement to get authorization before a tow puts their lives in danger, since angry car owners may start fights or brandish weapons while tow drivers await the go-ahead from police. The Memphis City Council is currently considering an amendment to the ordinance that would allow tow drivers to pull a car away from a dangerous site before calling it into police.
There are numerous towing companies operating in the city, but only a handful do what's known in the industry as "tow-aways." There are two types of tow-aways: patrol towing (where a company has been authorized to patrol lots of businesses and apartment complexes) and towing on call (where companies tow cars when a business owner or property manager calls on a tow truck to remove a specific car from their lot).
Businesses and apartment complexes often contract with towing companies to patrol their lots, even after the business is closed for the day. It's these patrol situations that tow drivers claim can sometimes put their lives in danger.
PB&J did not return multiple calls to comment on this story, but Lisa Gleaves, owner of Gleaves Towing, offered some insight into problems that come with patrol towing. Her company does not do patrol towing. Instead, she waits on calls to come from security guards working for lots where she's contracted to remove cars.
"In my opinion, patrol tows are what is causing a lot of the problems," Gleaves said. "You don't have anybody else there for help, like a security guard. You have your employees wide open to whatever can happen."
That "whatever can happen" can be dangerous, especially for operators doing patrol towing in high-crime areas. Heather Guess, manager of Superior Automotive & Towing, said one of her drivers recently had an AK-47 pointed at his head by a person angry his car was being towed. Superior specializes in tow-aways, mostly from apartment complexes.
"On Monday morning [a few weeks back], I was taking the VIN number off a vehicle, and I got assaulted. I got hit three times in the face," said the petite, outspoken critic of the city ordinance.
When the city council was debating the new ordinance, Guess showed videos in which groups of young men taunted her drivers by claiming they were gang members and threatening violence.
The biggest problem with the ordinance, Guess said, is that it requires drivers to call the MPD's Compstat line to gain authorization to tow. When a car is called in, the police run the VIN and tag numbers to ensure the car isn't stolen or involved in a reported crime. If the car has been involved in a crime, the MPD will send out the next tow truck on its police rotation list, and the company that called the car in isn't allowed to tow the vehicle.
State law already requires companies to report tow-aways to the police, but Guess said before the city ordinance was in place, her drivers would load the car onto the truck and then make the phone call as they were driving away.
Historically, there's only been one police staffer taking those calls, and she said drivers were sometimes forced to wait for up to 40 minutes before the report could be taken. Now, she says drivers will have to wait in dangerous situations while they're on hold with Compstat.
"Since we've gotten complaints, we've bumped up the number of people taking those calls to at least two people. That doesn't mean it will only be two. There could be more than two at times," said MPD spokesperson Alyssa Macon-Moore.
Macon-Moore admits that tow calls may be put on hold. Urgent calls coming from police officers dealing with violent crimes take priority over those of tow companies.
"The average time a company may stay on hold depends on what's going on at the time," Macon-Moore said. "We could get really busy one minute, and the next minute, it may seem like a ghost town."
Besides occasional long hold times, Guess said it's not uncommon for the Compstat system to go down entirely. She said the system was down for 36 hours a few weeks ago.
"If a car is broken down on top of a fueling tank at a gas station and those big tankers come in, I can't touch that car now for 36 hours until Compstat comes back up," said Guess, giving a scenario of what could happen while the system is down.
That's why Councilman Bill Boyd has proposed an amendment that will allow drivers to tow the car before calling Compstat in instances where the driver's safety is in question or when a commercial business is being obstructed. If passed, the driver will be able to tow a vehicle so long as Compstat is notified within 15 minutes.
The amendment was scheduled for its second reading at last week's council meeting, but it's been postponed while the city attorney researches whether or not state law will allow the council to let drivers pull away before calling police.
"We never touched the issue of them having to call the police to get permission to tow. That's state law. What the city ordinance does is, if they can prove a car was towed before the police were called, the company will have to refund the tow fee," said Collins, referring to the fact that, despite the addition of requiring police authorization in the city ordinance, state law already required such approval.
Regardless of whether the amendment is passed, Gleaves said her policy has always been safety first.
"As the driver, you have to make a decision: Do you sit with this vehicle and wait? Or do you leave and come back? My drivers know that if they ever fear something may happen to them, they need to drive away. There's not a vehicle out there worth your life," Gleaves said.
Collins agrees: "I do have concerns for their safety, but I would prefer they use common sense. If you're trying to tow a car and you see gang members around, what are you going to do? If I were you, I'd want to call the police first. If you want to make the $125 [towing fee] so bad that you'll risk going to the Med or the morgue, there's something wrong with that picture."
License to Steal?
There's not one but two signs posted on the front door at Cooper-Young's Soul Fish restaurant warning diners not to park in the lot just south of the business. For the past few years, customers who've parked there have been towed from the lot, even after the insurance business that uses the lot has closed for the day.
"My neighbor is very concerned with people parking on his lot. I understand that and do my best to make sure people don't park there. But it's been less than an ideal relationship between the two of us. He's brutal about towing cars," said Soul Fish co-owner Raymond Williams, who monitors the lot to watch for cars being towed.
"If it's a busy Friday night and I forget to stick my head out for a few minutes, somebody's going to park there and he's going to have them towed. It's a nightmare," Williams said. "I can't spend my life putting up signs telling people not to park someplace that does not have signs."
The new ordinance requires companies who patrol business or residential lots to install 18" by 12" signs that contain the name and phone number of the towing company and that of the MPD's report center in plain view of all entrances to the property.
Other lots do have signs, but they may not be in plain view. Owners of the lots surrounding the Hi-Tone Café are notorious for towing cars of patrons of the Midtown rock club. Most have signs, but some aren't placed in areas where drivers are likely to see them.
Jonesboro, Arkansas, resident Joanna Jones made the hour drive to Memphis earlier this year to catch a Saturday night show at the Hi-Tone. She parked in the lot of a neighboring apartment complex and didn't notice any "no parking" signs.
"After the show, my truck was gone. My first thought was that it had been stolen," Jones said. "But I went back into the Hi-Tone and they told me it'd likely been towed."
She called around and located her truck at a local towing company, whose name she could not recall. She was informed that the office was closed for the night, and she wouldn't be allowed to retrieve her vehicle until the next day.
"It was a big ordeal. I had no plans to stay the night [in Memphis], and I had no one to stay with," Jones said. Jones was able to retrieve her car the next day, and she had just enough cash to pay the towing fee. But not everyone is so lucky.
"The longer they keep the vehicle, the more storage fees they collect," said Art Hathaway, owner of D's Wrecker Service. "If you have to be at work the next day, and you can't get to the towing company, now you can't go into work. That's a bad situation made worse, and the rent is steadily accumulating. At $30 a day [in addition to the $125 tow fee], your car could be buried rapidly."
Hathaway is something of an unconventional towing company operator. His business focuses mostly on emergency tows from accidents and towing for dealerships and body shops, but he admits that he occasionally does tow-aways.
"This is going to sound like the pot calling the kettle black, because I am involved in tow-aways. But I have a really hard time getting behind it," Hathaway said. "It's a form of extortion. Your car is at ransom, and you pay the bill or you leave the vehicle."
Calling tow-aways a "necessary evil," Hathaway said sometimes nonconsensual towing is needed, as when cars are abandoned at businesses. But what Hathaway finds the most disturbing is the practice of some companies that would rather drivers not retrieve their vehicles.
"The main goal of the majority of people doing tow-aways is to sell the vehicle," Hathaway said. "If I have a car on my lot that's less than 10 years old, I can get a title to it in 10 months. You could do a $15,000 tow. It's a racket."
While some such situations are inevitable for those who simply cannot afford to pay fees to the towing company, the practice has been made worse over the years by some rogue companies that set their own inflated storage fees, despite the fees set forth by the city years ago.
The new ordinance puts more limits on the fees companies can charge. The initial towing fee is set at $125, with a storage fee of $30 per day. Before the ordinance, if a car was picked up on a Friday night and the company wouldn't allow the driver to pick it up until the next day, some companies would charge a storage fee for Friday night and one for Saturday, even though the driver had no chance to get their car on Friday.
"Now they're saying if I tow your car and you pick it up on the next possible business day, I can only charge you storage for one day. The problem was, if I towed your car on a Friday night and we weren't open until Monday, I could charge you $245 right off the bat," said Gleaves, who claims her business has never charged for storage when it wasn't open for business.
Guess also said Superior Automotive & Towing hasn't charged those fees to their customers.
"I've never done that. I don't charge anything from the hour prior to when we close, because by the time people figure out where their car is, they can't get here before we close," Guess said.
But Collins said he's gotten plenty of calls from constituents about other companies in town charging exorbitant storage fees, and that's what inspired him to take up revamping the entire towing ordinance.
Lauren Hannaford, an account executive with Obsidian Public Relations, had her car towed from a Memphis College of Art lot in November 2008, while she was attending a show at the Hi-Tone.
The downtown company responsible for the tow said she could pick up her car that night, so she and her boyfriend caught a ride there with a stranger. When she arrived, she was told she had to have cash to retrieve her vehicle, but she didn't have any money on her.
The person working that night advised that she walk to an ATM at a nearby gas station. It was late, and she was concerned about walking through a bad neighborhood, but she had little choice. But first, she wanted to get a few items out of her car.
"The man handed me my keys, as we were discussing how I could pay him and where to find an ATM. As I started to walk to my car, he got in front of me and put his hand on a gun on his hip and started to pull it out. He said I couldn't leave without paying first," Hannaford said. "For some reason, he felt threatened by a 120-pound girl, and he needed to put his hand on his gun, like he would shoot me if I tried to get in my car and leave without paying."
Collins has heard similar complaints.
"When individuals couldn't pay the enormous storage and towing fees, the companies wouldn't even allow them to get their personal property out of their cars," Collins said.
Collins included a provision in the city ordinance that requires companies to allow drivers to retrieve any personal items not physically attached to their vehicle.
Additionally, the ordinance requires all tow-truck drivers obtain an operator's permit from the city, and drivers must submit to random drug testing and criminal background checks.
Permits will not be issued to any driver who has been convicted of a felony within the past five years. Drivers may also be refused a license if they have had more than one D.U.I. conviction, moving traffic violations, or "any other good and just cause" within the past five years.
Guess takes issue with some of those new requirements. She maintains that her drivers are already required to undergo drug testing by the Department of Transportation. As for the criminal background checks, she said even city of Memphis employees aren't subjected to such screenings.
"The city's 'Ban the Box' ordinance says any new hires for the city of Memphis do not have to give any information about background, felonies, crimes, or anything until they go through the interview process," Guess said.
But Collins said the changes were necessary to prevent the theft of personal property from towed vehicles.
"We found out that some tow company employees had really bad criminal histories. Some of the property in these cars would disappear, and that spurred these changes," Collins said.
Whether they like the changes or not, most parts of the new towing ordinance are here to stay. Boyd's proposed amendment regarding the reporting of towed vehicles is the only portion that may be changed.
If citizens believe towing companies are violating any part of the ordinance, they can take their complaints to the new Memphis Transportation Commission, which was established around the same time the towing regulations were passed.
The seven-member board will hear grievances from citizens in regard to tow trucks, taxis, limousines, shuttle services, horse carriages, and courtesy drivers. Representatives from the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, the hotel/motel industry, and Memphis International Airport will sit on the board, along with four members appointed by Mayor A C Wharton.
"The mayor and I met last week, and, hopefully, he'll be able to name people soon," Collins said.
The commission will investigate complaints filed against towing companies, and if they determine the tow wasn't justified, the commission can award towing fees back to the person and/or suspend the company for 10 days, 30 days, or six months. They can also revoke the company's license.
"The city council is saying this isn't right. You have a license to steal," Hathaway said. "Now, if these people don't conform to the ordinance, they're going to take their license away."