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Tow Truck Operator Wins Suit

Critics had complained of gouging. But a court rules U.S. law prevents cities from regulating such operators.

July 16, 2000|MEG JAMES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal appeals court has handed a victory to a Santa Ana tow truck owner who used a federal trade law to circumvent towing regulations in several Orange County cities.

Patrick P. Tocher, who owns Pacific Coast Motoring and California Coastal Towing, sued the cities and police departments of Santa Ana, Costa Mesa and Tustin in 1995, contending that deregulation laws passed by Congress usurped city ordinances.

Critics complained that Tocher was using the federal rules to charge higher-than-average towing rates. Santa Ana police said his company towed as many as 20 cars a night from private parking lots across the city, leaving no indication for unsuspecting owners that their vehicles had been impounded.

But the 9th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals on Friday sided with Tocher, saying that cities do not have the authority to regulate towing firms.

The case, and several others like it, has been closely watched in the towing industry and government legal circles.

"We knew we were right all along," Tocher said Saturday. "Otherwise we wouldn't have started this. This [case] has taken more than five years. It's been aggravating, and I've been tormented and stressed out."

Tocher said he would renew efforts to win damage awards from several cities. Those claims, also in federal court, were put on hold while the appeals court sorted out whether cities could regulate towing companies.

Tocher lost his Santa Ana permit about six years ago after his firm was booted from the Police Department's list of eight authorized tow truck operators. The city maintained a list of companies that police officers called when they needed an illegally parked car or truck towed.

After losing the Santa Ana job, Tocher sought business from private firms. He received contracts to haul away cars parked illegally in private parking lots at apartment complexes and shopping centers.

At the time, police officials tried to stop Tocher, saying he could not legally tow cars parked anywhere in Santa Ana--unless he had a city permit. And people who had to pay as much as $200 to retrieve their cars complained, saying they didn't understand why cars were being towed from empty parking lots at businesses closed for the night.

Still, the appeals court said Friday that cities have no authority to clamp down on tow truck operators. The panel agreed with an earlier court that ruled that a 1994 law passed by Congress prevented cities from adopting regulations that covered freight haulers, including tow trucks.

In 1994, Congress was acting to streamline rules for air shippers such as the United Parcel Service. Some legislative aides said lawmakers in Washington never intended to strip cities of their ability to regulate tow truck operations when they voted on the UPS legislation. Nonetheless, Congress never modified the wording.

On Saturday, Tocher said his average tow charge is $150, which he said was typical for the area.

The appeals court ruled Friday that while a city can adopt rules covering tow truck companies it contracts with, the city cannot place restrictions on tow truck companies that do business with private companies such as apartments and shopping centers.

Attorneys representing Santa Ana, Tustin and Costa Mesa could not be reached Saturday for comment.

The appeals court gave the cities a small victory, however. The panel ruled that it was permissible for cities to place requirements on tow truck companies that the city has under contract.

That means that cities will still be able to place restrictions and set fees for towing companies that cities hire for specific jobs, such as parking enforcement.

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