COVER STORY ‌ The Parking Issue: Off the Hook 

Parkers, towing companies square things up with the city

Over the past year, since this paper began closely covering parking and towing issues in town (and magically turning anyone who parked illegally on private property into an aggrieved martyr), there has been a sharp decline in the number of complaints filed against towing companies.

According to Sgt. Dan Riccio, an investigator at the Charleston Police Department who focuses on Livability Court cases, the number of charges filed against towing companies accused of playing fast and loose with municipal codes has been cleaved in half as towing companies have gotten their acts together over the past nine months.

In that time, the only towing company to have been charged with skirting car-hauling ordinances has been Gilchrist Towing, and even then, it's been only five cases, according to Riccio. (The sexy part is that one of Gilchrist's employees was found by a judge to have perjured herself in connection with a towing case -- more on that later).

No longer are towing companies hauling cars off private property without proper licensing, and no longer, it appears, are towing companies charging $25-a-day storage fees for cars taken from private property, the amount they can charge for a vehicle ganked from a public spot. Instead, they're charging the $6-a-night allowed by municipal law.

Riccio says the majority of complaints filed against towing companies assert they are still trying to force towees to pay cash only, and charging too-high storage fees.

The incidence of towing complaints has dropped so much that a strip joint located in The Neck no longer keeps a copy of our March 23 edition -- which included a Towing Bill of Rights -- for those raiding its ATM to get their cars out of the pokey. (This has apparently meant a freer flow of cash from the ATM to the girls "performing" instead of to the guys towing -- a presumably happier situation all around.)

Riccio and Janie Borden, an assistant City Attorney, say a meeting in March between the City and the towing company operators helped curb the number of problems. Before that, many of the operators were trying to hold onto the very incorrect belief that the same codes and fee schedules they could apply to cars towed from public spots applied to cars towed from private spots.

Now, mind you, the laws -- printed in legible black and white ink on clean, white paper -- had been on the books for seven years. But after that meeting, the operators could no longer blissfully claim ignorance, making it that much easier for Riccio and the City's legal department to enforce towing laws.

Judges sitting on towing company complaint cases came up with a novel approach, too.

The "death penalty," as it were, in Livability Court is only a $1,097 fine -- $500 in actual punishment, $597 in state-approved court and paperwork fees. So judges have been popping towing companies who've gone astray with the full fine, but allowing the companies to pay only $50 upfront and suspending the remaining $1,047 for 12 months.

To some, this would understandably sound like the court is going easy on towing companies. Not so.

Judges figured out that hitting a towing company for a thousand bucks here and again would have little effect, since that amount of money wasn't enough to make much of a ripple. But, what if a company continually fell afoul of the law, and was suddenly faced with, say, a $5,000 fine?

Not only would $5,000 ripped out of a small company's weekly cash flow virtually ensure future compliance, the judges theorized, word of the sanction would spread like wildfire among the other towing company operators, scaring everyone straight.

That's not to say that every operator's fingers have stayed clean, as evidenced by the five charges leveled at Gilchrist over the last nine months. Of the five cases brought against Gilchrist, two were dismissed, and two are under appeal.

Livability Court Judge N. Steven Steinert found that a Gilchrist employee may have perjured herself in a towing case earlier this year. Steinert felt that the employee, who shall remain nameless because the case is under appeal, had presented his court with a false invoice that may have included a forged signature.

"Now, the lawyer for their side will say the woman whose car was towed perjured herself," said Steinert the other day, before heading into court.

Actually, Armand Derfner, Gilchrist's attorney, mostly declines comment on the matter, apparently wanting to keep as low a profile as possible. He did confirm that a separate hearing has to be held before his client could possibly be found guilty.

But what was really odd was a recent interview attended by Borden and fellow deputy City Attorney Susan Herdina in which both of them swore up and down and on a stack of Bibles that the charge of perjury was "unrelated" to towing issues. Since when did an employee of a towing company potentially presenting a forged invoice in a towing case not have everything to do with towing issues?

Regardless, Borden welcomes the additional attention towing coverage brings to her office for the simple reason that it educates citizens about their options. Borden wants to make sure citizens know her office's phone number -- 724-3730 -- so that if they have problems, she can direct them to the proper City office, or solve the issue right then.

But for all the good our coverage seems to have done, it also opened a bit of a Pandora's Box, according to Riccio, who now says our stories have emboldened some towees to try and get out of any and all fees related to their towings.

According to Riccio, just because a towing company might make a small mistake -- like not notifying the police within an hour that they've got your vehicle -- it doesn't make the driver any less culpable.

In short, if the towing company screws up, it doesn't necessarily get you off the hook.

Click here to download our "Parking Land" boardgame as a PDF!

1. Don't you dare park here or you will be towed. Unless, of course, it's Sunday morning and church is in session. Does this mean you might be able to get away with parking here late on Saturday and leaving your car while you snooze away your hangover in a friend's nearby pad? Tempting.

2. Handicapped, non-metered spaces can be found in all the prime locations around town. Sometimes it's easy to miss the handicapped sign when you're so damn excited about finding a plum spot on Wentworth Street, just inches from Sermet's! Who knew that parking there would net you a $100 ticket?!

3. Don't be a fool. You will be towed. This space is reserved for horse-drawn carriages. Should you thumb your nose at the parking sign and pull in anyway, you're probably going to step in a puddle of horse piss and get a steep ticket. It's all about karma.

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4. This means they'll ticket you if you park here after hours, but does it mean they'll tow? Do you take the chance? This is where you need to ask yourself, "Do I feel lucky?"

5. This sign is a polite plea from a resident who's asking you nicely to keep on moving. If you do ignore the request and block someone's driveway, you could be facing a $22 fine or even a tow. Besides, you don't want to piss somebody off by blocking them in, do you?

6. Some rich guy's got this space reserved for his use. He won't mind if you just pull in for two minutes while you run into the restaurant to meet your friends, right? Wrong. He'll know. He's probably got a closed-circuit video camera rigged up so he can monitor his precious space day and night. And if you park here, your car won't be here when you get back.

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7. Peninsular neighborhoods are zoned by letter. If you have a decal that corresponds to the correct parking district, you can park here with impunity. Should you not be so lucky, you may park on the street for the allotted time -- one hour, in this instance. Meter maids (a.k.a. Parking Enforcement Officers) use their handy-dandy computers to enter your license plate number and digitally "chalk" your tires. Stick around for longer than 60 minutes, and you're looking at a $25 ticket. Residential districts are in effect 24 hours a day, so don't think that you can get away with parking in the French Quarter or Ansonborough after-hours while you barhop. Vigilant residents will have you ticketed and/or towed. All they have to do is call the cops, since this is a city street.

8. You've found yourself in a private lot that's contracted with a towing company to remove illegally parked vehicles. Lot owners are permitted to tow your car, but they are required by the municipal code to clearly announce where your car will be once it's removed. The private lot can be a sketchy place, even for people legally parked. Towing companies have been known to be hypervigilant, trolling lots to find errant parkers. But you didn't hear that from us.

9. Oooh. Scary. Well, you should be scared, because the boot is one expensive mother of an inconvenience. Should you roll the dice and park here while no one's looking, you could come back to find your car immobilized or simply gone. If they're gonna tow, though, they are required to post information about the towing company. If there's no sign, you've got yourself a good case for livability court. Try and win on a technicality, even if you were abusing the system.

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10. How are you supposed to make sense of this mess while driving down a congested city street, desperately looking for a parking space? First, this is a commercial loading zone during the day (we're guessing from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., based on the other two signs). Only cars and trucks sporting the P-tag can park here, for loading and unloading only. The P-tag is a pretty handy license plate that usually keeps PEOs at bay, unless you're a little too cavalier with your use of the thing. The second sign tells us that no one can use this space between 5 and 7 a.m. and the third says that, hey, after 7 p.m. you can park here for two hours at a time! The fine for parking in a loading zone during the day is $45 and the fine for parking here longer than two hours in the evening, if you're busted, will cost you at least $8.

11. This space is for CARTA only. Don't park here unless you want to give that guy standing at the bus stop a ride (and you want to get a $22 ticket).

12. They don't make 'em much simpler than this. Park here, get towed, gnash teeth, rend garments. Beneath this sign you're likely to find a yellow stripe along the curb and/or a yellow box with an X through it on the street itself.

13. What part of this don't you understand?


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