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Bandit Tow-Truck Drivers to Face Jail

Police Commission proposes sting operations in areas with frequent illegal car seizures.

June 23, 2004|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

Bandit tow-truck drivers who illegally seize vehicles from Los Angeles private parking lots then demand motorists pay for their return could soon be jailed and their trucks confiscated.

The Los Angeles Police Commission approved a proposal Tuesday that would direct officers to arrest unlicensed tow-truck drivers, who often take vehicles by pretending to have agreements with parking lot owners.

"They are basically stealing people's cars," Los Angeles police Capt. Bradley R. Merritt told the five-member commission, which also approved a larger report for the City Council on the bandit towing issue. "This is a chronic problem. We're talking thousands of vehicles annually."

Exact numbers are hard to establish, he said, because many people never realize the towing of their vehicle was illegal. A tow company must have the lot owner's approval for any removal of vehicles from a parking area, Merritt said.

If the City Council has no objections, the new directive would be implemented in about a month.

Commission President David Cunningham III said the board is taking an aggressive approach, which calls for sting operations against bandit tow companies in areas with frequent illegal car seizures.

"If there is a clear-cut case of a tow-truck driver taking a vehicle from a lot without anyone's permission, officers would make an arrest," Merritt said. "We will throw them in jail and tow their truck."

Since the federal government deregulated towing in the mid-1990s, effectively ending the LAPD's oversight of the companies, illegal towing issues have been handled through civil actions.

But after being barraged in May with complaints from constituents, the City Council called for a report on the extent of the problem.

Since Jan. 1, 2003, 34 complaints have been filed with the commission against seven of the most active bandit tow companies. In some cases, victims alleged their vehicles were taken after having been parked for five to 10 minutes.

According to a commission report, the agency received the most complaints -- 11 -- against Auto Center Tow of Van Nuys, which allegedly removed vehicles without parking lot owners' consent, charged an excessive amount or illegally impounded a car.

Another company, Safety Towing Inc. of Los Angeles, has been charged by the city attorney's office with 25 counts, including multiple counts of attempted extortion.

Safety Towing declined to comment.

Det. Benjamin Jones said the department plans to train reserve officers to conduct anti-bandit towing operations in each division. The LAPD detective who handles all towing complaints now has a backlog of 40 cases.

"The complaints reflect just a few of the incidents," Jones said. "The number of illegal tows is far greater citywide."

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