Car-driving Philadelphians may have no greater nemesis than tow-truck drivers, who stalk parking scofflaws as avidly as political pundits anticipate President Trump’s tweets.
Some rogue tow-truck drivers operate so unscrupulously – like posting no-parking signs in front of lawful spots or towing cars that owners parked in front of their own driveways – that the city began enforcing a new law Feb. 1 that allows towing companies to remove a car only if police have ticketed it.
But several competing towing companies have formed an unlikely coalition to contest the so-called “ticket-to-tow” law, saying it hurts their business and threatens public safety by turning cops into meter maids and diverting police attention from crime-fighting.
They have asked a judge to intervene and invalidate the ordinance, which they say unconstitutionally makes towing an activity that requires “governmental approval” by inserting police between property owners and the tow drivers they hire to remove illegally parked cars from private property.
In the petition filed late last month in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, four towing companies and six property owners sued the city, police department, Mayor Jim Kenney and police Commissioner Richard Ross, demanding an injunction.
They complained that police can take hours to respond to complaints of illegally parked cars – and sometimes don’t respond at all. With tow drivers idle, waiting for cops who sometimes never come, calls for towing service have dipped by 70 percent, according to the court filing.
Rick Caban said calls to his company – Siani’s Towing and Recovery, a plaintiff in the case – dropped so low that Caban laid off two drivers and two secretaries. He’s also now trying to sell one of his tow trucks “just to stay afloat.”
The new law also repeats a 2010 city ordinance that required ticketing before towing – and that law was “abandoned” in 2012 “after it proved unworkable,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Michael S. Henry argued in the filing.
“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” Henry wrote in the complaint.
Mayoral spokesman Mike Dunn and police spokeswoman Officer Christine O’Brien said they could not comment on ongoing litigation. City Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez, who authored the legislation, declined to comment.
In Philadelphia, the battle for parking has gotten so cutthroat in some congested neighborhoods that it became fodder for a reality TV show called “Parking Wars” and drove police to create their “No Savesies” social media campaign. Parking disputes in Philly even have ended in gunfire and bloodshed.
Competition in the towing business, consequently, has grown fierce, with predatory towing so commonplace that city and state authorities have launched investigations.
“Crooks, thieves, vultures, scavengers – we’ve been called every name in the book,” Caban said.
But towing, like any other profession, is tainted by “a few bad apples,” Caban added. The new law unfairly penalizes all towing companies for the misdeeds of a few, he said.
“This law is actually garbage,” said Caban, whose brother started Siani’s about 15 years ago. “The city knows the corrupt companies, and it’s the city’s job to shut them down and make sure they never get a license again. Instead, we’re the ones being held accountable and liable for it. The city is driving us out of business.”
While the new law may be imperfect, some car-parking citizens say it sets one necessary bar: Who gets to decide what spots are legal or not?
“I can understand (the argument): Is this the best use of police resources?” said Lauren Vidas, a Center City resident who had to pay $300 last year to retrieve her car after a tow driver removed it from a legal curbside spot on 15th Street in Center City. “I’m not sure what the solution is, but it can’t just be some guy in a truck making a decision based on what he thinks he should do.”
City officials are working on beefing up oversight to hold unethical drivers accountable. The Department of Licenses and Inspections, which regulates the industry, put out a request for proposals about three months ago seeking a “towing practices management” company to help reform the industry in Philly. Responses are due within the next month.
The city also doesn’t have a master map of legal driveways and spaces – a lapse L&I also is working to correct, the spokeswoman said.
Towing company owner Lew Blum is one of the plaintiffs in the court action. Blum started his business in 1978, but towing has been in the family for generations. His grandfather started a towing business back in 1930, and Blum’s uncle owns George Smith Towing.
Blum applauds any effort to reform the industry – except the ticket-to-tow law, which he complains unjustly demonizes the whole industry and should be repealed.
“We don’t get rid of all Council when there’s one bad Council person. You get rid of the bad Council person. You don’t get rid of all police officers because there’s been a few bad police officers who were selling drugs or robbing criminals. You don’t say to all 6,000 police officers: ‘You’re out of here! We’re going to get a whole new fresh batch!’ No. They get the bad ones out of their barrel,” Blum said. “That’s our remedy: Get the bad towers out of our barrel and let us go on towing vehicles the way we know how.”
The last six weeks have been among the grimmest in his company’s history, Blum added. Towing services normally bring in $18,000 to $22,000 a month in credit card receipts, but that dipped to $4,000 since the new law took effect, Blum said.
Veteran towers who remember how badly the 2010 ticket-to-tow law dented business are uniting to fight the new law now.
“We decided that this time we’re going to go down fighting,” Blum said.