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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sergeant's towing scam targeted wheelchair users, vehicles with legal disability placards

By Sean Cruz

Portland, Oregon--With all of the well-deserved attention Retriever Towing and its owner, Gary Coe, is getting these days, it is probably easy to overlook Oregon’s other patrol towing predators, and the fact that it is the business model itself that creates the problems experienced by so many Oregonians.

It is worth noting that patrol towing has been banned in many other states. In California, for example, with some common-sense exceptions, the property owner must be present at the time of the tow and sign the invoice. Not complicated at all.

This basic change in Oregon towing policy would eliminate the vast majority of towing-related issues in the state at a stroke, and free up a mountain of police time and resources.

It is reasonably safe to assert that every predatory towing incident in Oregon results in an expenditure of taxpayer funds, that the police get pulled into it....

Retriever has towed my vehicle out of my own driveway three times, breaking the transmission in the process. Sergeant’s later added a fourth time, towing my van, broken transmission and all, right out of my own driveway. You can bet I called the police!

These tows occurred as a result of the towers’ contracts with Hacienda CDC, owner of the small parking lot adjacent to my home.

Note that it is not the towers that pay for these police services, nor is it the owners of the properties they patrol. These costs are born by you, Oregon taxpayer, and it is a fundamental part of the predatory patrol towers’ business model.

You have to ask yourself if you want your hard-earned tax money spent this way.

Oregon’s chief predatory patrollers, Retriever and Sergeant’s, hire and employ a platoon of thugs, arm them with tow trucks specially designed to grab and go in seconds, and pay them on a commission basis to skulk about in the dark.

It sounds like the scenario for a video game to me: Tow-Jacker!...Devil with a Hook!...Your car or your life!....

You can bet that Retriever's and Sergeant's commission schedules are designed inducements for ratcheting up the aggression quotient. Their attitude towards the public is that they are "stealing parking" and should be treated as any other kinds of thieves. Does this surprise you...?

These drivers function as the patrollers' sales agents as much as anything else they do; the towers receive no income from the property owners; the towing invoices are more like orders, with the salesmen empowered to write their own....

On the other side of the deal, Sergeant’s and Retriever’s contracts with property owners allow them to delegate on-the-spot towing authority to the aforementioned commission-paid thugs; thugs whose job is to find people "stealing" parking.

The conflict of interest is built into the business model, and that also needs to change.

Senator Gordly’s Senate Bill 431 and the Attorney General’s Senate Bill 116, both passed in 2007 on unanimous votes, give the state and local governments broad authority to regulate involuntary towing, but those new laws have yet to be implemented to any appreciable degree.

For more than a year, Sergeant’s Towing ran an illegal towing scam on public property in front of the former McCall’s Restaurant at Waterfront Park.

The notorious predatory patrol towing company heisted vehicles from the City-owned parking lot with no contract or authority from the City of Portland to do so.

The City of Portland determined in September that a Portland man, whose wheelchair-enabled van was towed from the McCalls lot by a Sergeant’s towing varlet, will at long last get his money back and just his money back.

Nothing for the inconvenience, the frustration, the time lost, the insulting attitude of Sergeant’s Towing, nothing for the real out-of-pocket expense that this company cost an innocent person…just the money that they had no legal right to at any point in the story….

Sergeant’s driver took the vehicle knowing he was leaving someone in a wheelchair without his vehicle! This is the kind of commission-driven thinking that characterizes the businesses burden on the public.

What is so singularly egregious about this particular towing scam is that it targeted people in wheelchairs!

The McCall’s lot contains several spaces reserved for vehicles marked with disabled placards, and a small forest of Sergeant’s signs that appear to be posted deliberately to confuse the public.

Some of the Sergeant’s signs posted throughout the lot state that a disability placard AND a McCall’s Restaurant permit must both be visible on the vehicle.

But McCall’s Restaurant had been closed for more than a year! There WERE no permits and there ARE no McCall’s Restaurant permits!

This predatory patrol towing victim parked in the lot on a Sunday afternoon intending to take a brisk wheel around the park. He parked his van in a space where the sign states that both the disability placard AND a McCall’s permit must be displayed.

But McCall’s was an empty building! It was a Sunday! He’s been in a wheelchair for more than 15 years! The placard is there! The van has a wheelchair lift! Towed anyway! And the attitude from Sergeant’s that followed!

The reason that none of these facts were a deterrent to the tow driver was because he was hooking up precisely the sort of “customer” the scam is designed to snare!

Sergeant’s commission-paid thugs patrolled McCall’s 24-7, placard or not, pure gravy to them.

Sergeant’s had no contract or authority to post its signs or tow vehicles from that parking lot.

Sergeant’s sent the towing victim a nasty letter in response to his complaint, stating that he should have called them on that Sunday afternoon to obtain a McCall’s permit, if he didn’t want to get his van towed….

There was no signage on the property that described how to get a McCall’s permit which, again, did not exist…..

This is a measure of the arrogance one finds rampant among patrol towers.

Anyone whose vehicle was towed from McCall’s in the past year or so should contact the City about getting your money back.

One wonders where else they are pulling these scams….

Many thanks to Tim Barrett for bulldogging this case to a successful conclusion.

Oregonians (and visitors to the state) owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Barrett for providing Senator Gordly’s office with his research on patrol towing in other states prior to the 2007 Legislative Session.

That information, which included the 9th U.S. Circuit Court’s ruling upholding California’s ban on patrol towing, gave us the legal foundation for Senate Bill 431 and Senate Bill 116. Both bills passed on unanimous votes.

The Circuit’s Court’s language is now embodied in Oregon Statute as Section 1 of Senate Bill 116 (2007).

As you can see, there remains some legislative work yet to be done regarding predatory patrol towing.

That work obviously needs to address the issue of towing vehicles that display disability placards, on both state and local levels.

It is completely unreasonable to require persons with disabilities to have to travel to the predators’ lots to recover their vehicles.

Oregon’s public policy needs to be clarified, set and enforced regarding vehicles bearing disability placards. This is a local issue only to the extent that the state fails to act.

This policy must at minimum accomplish two things: 1. Provide an alternative to towing the vehicle away in the first place (which should include a quick phone call to the property owner); and, 2. In the event of actual towing, facilitate the speedy, efficient return of the vehicle to its owner.

The simple solution to this problem is to require the property owner or manager to be present at the time of the tow and sign the invoice.

That is how it is done in other states; this is not rocket science….

Not one of the tows that have made the news recently, and most of those that did not, would have happened if the conflict-of-interest issue in the business model was dealt with.

Photos of the McCall’s parking lot taken the day after the wheelchair-enabled van was towed are here:


Anonymous said...

Sergeant's Towing is actually paying two guys in an unmarked vehicle to sit in the parking lot at 911 Main St. in Oregon City. I left my car unattended for 15 minutes prior to an appointment in the building and was towed! It is not posted that it is "patrolled" or rather monitored like a hawk.

sean cruz said...

Sergeants is running some kind of operation against my neighbors right now. They're in the parking lot several times a day; just about 20 minutes ago, there were TWO Sergeants trucks in there at the same time.

That's a lot of tow truck action for a parking lot with only seven parking spaces!

fronk said...

Sergeants is now running a scam at 12th and Hawthorne food cart pod area. I parked in one of the 3 spots next door in front of a closed restaurant that said 30 min parking at midnight last night.

They were waiting and my truck was gone within 15 min. Only after they towed mine and the car next to me did I see a small tucked away Sergeants sign. $217 contributed to their racket to release my vehicle an hour later. Scam!