Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett proposed several provisions to a council bill to crack down on aggressive and predatory towing.
Predatory towing has been a challenge in Montgomery County for over the past 25 years, beginning when the first towing bill was enacted in 1988, according to Eric Friedman, director of the county’s Office of Consumer Protection.
He said predatory towing is currently a nationwide concern in metropolitan areas.
Each year there are approximately 50,000 vehicles towed in Montgomery County, according to the Office of Consumer Protection.
Council member Roger Berliner (D-1) first introduced the council bill in April and the public safety committee held a public hearing June 16, where Leggett introduced his proposed changes.
“In my years at the Council I have heard countless stories of Predatory Towing, and enough is enough,” said Berliner on his Facebook page.
The provisions to Bill 17-15 include prohibiting any charge if the consumer returns to their vehicle before the towing is completed, modernizing the property owner’s procedures for authorizing each tow by establishing documentation, requiring disclosures in the contract between the towing company and property owner to ensure that the property owner is aware of its liabilities and obligations, and several other recommendations.
The most common complaint by consumers is there were not any signs indicating that a certain areais a towing area, according to Friedman. Other complaints include consumers stating they were in compliance with the sign or they walked across the street for short period of time and in that short period their car was towed.
Friedman said that most consumers are unaware that towing firms are usually hiding behind a wall or a tree waiting tow cars or that the shopping centers where they are parking are private property.
According to a County Council memo, Bill 17-15 would authorize the County executive to set flat rates for towing services, add notice and towing procedure requirements, prohibit the immobilization of certain vehicles, provide certain additional enforcement powers for the Office of Consumer Protection, and amend the law governing motor vehicle towing and immobilization on private property.
Berliner said that that the bill will help with illegal towing in Montgomery County.
“Bill 17-15 will strengthen our County’s efforts against these companies who act in bad faith, and help protect those simply looking for a legal place to park,” Berliner said on his Facebook page.
Friedman said that Montgomery County recognizes that you have to have some rules with respect to parking.
“It’s difficult to get a good balance between necessary rules and fairness, and so this is something that we think is good to do to try to adjust the law to make it fair for everybody,” he said.
He also said predatory towing is bad for the economy in Montgomery County.
“The problem is once the consumer has been towed and believes they have been unjustly towed they will never go back to that shopping center again, they will never go back to that business district again, they will never go back to that restaurant again,” he said.
Montgomery County already requires all towing companies to register with the Office of Consumer Protection.
The state of Maryland enacted a towing law in 2012 that states certain requirements for signs including the size of the sign, the number of signs per square foot, and the information that must be on the sign including how much it will cost to reclaim the vehicle and the phone number for towing firm where the consumer can reclaim their vehicle. The law also prohibited “spotters,” individuals who look for people parked on private properties to walk away from their cars.
Currently, federal law has limitations on state and local regulation of the towing industry. In 1995, the federal body overseeing the towing industry was eliminated. In May, Representatives Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Don Beyer (D-VA) introduced a bill to help local jurisdictions crack down on predatory towing.
“We applaud Congressman Van Hollen and Congressman Beyer for introducing legislation to remedy any federal preemption loophole and to ensure that states and localities have the ability to limit overly aggressive towing practices,” Friedman said.
The Public Safety Committee was scheduled to review the bill on June 29.