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Tampa police: We will start investigating tow trucks


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10Investigates revealed how law enforcement was wrongly dismissing criminal tow violations as "civil matters."


TAMPA, Florida -- Following 10Investigates' continued reporting on tow trucks that break the law, along with the lack of oversight from local regulators and law enforcement, the Tampa Police Department is instructing officers to start taking reports from drivers who call in with towing complaints that could be criminal.


Reviews of citizen complaints and nearly a dozen interviews indicate TPD officers - like many other law enforcement agencies - frequently dismiss tow truck problems as "a civil issue," even though state statute 715.07 provides for criminal charges - some felonies - for violations.


"We need to do a better job to make sure we're all on the same page," said Tampa Police spokesperson Steve Hegarty. "Our officers need to know when it's a civil matter and when it's a felony and we can get involved."


After 10Investigates brought repeat wrecker violations to the attention of county officials and the Tampa Police Department, the county began to rewrite its ordinances and TPD's attorney issued a memo to all officers instructing them to fully-document the problem and to direct-file the case with the state attorney's office.


Towing companies in Hillsborough County used to be regulated by the Public Transportation Commission, but since it was dissolved in late 2017, there has been little oversight over the industry.


Monday, 10Investigates told the story of drivers who had been the victim of overcharging and other violations. All of them reported calling the police and being told their complaints were "civil issues," rather than the criminal violations state statute 715.07 specifies. It's a misunderstanding among many law enforcement agencies that 10Investigates has identified before.


TPD says it has two detectives looking into the specific violations 10Investigates documented recently, and their report will likely end up with State Attorney Andrew Warren, who emailed a statement to 10Investigates:


“Our focus is protecting the community from predatory business practices. Operators who are knowingly breaking the law to shake-down customers will be held accountable. By partnering with TPD to prosecute these offenses, we know we can reduce how often they occur.”


"We're going to enforce the law," Hegarty said. "We just need to be real clear what the law is so our officers know what the law is."


The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office was not able to identify any recent cases where they had filed any tow-related charges, but the Manatee County Sheriff's Office had recently stepped up their enforcement, filing charges related to 715.07 against a local wrecker operator in March.



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Tampa is no different than almost any city; it has not, does not, and will not enforce the law.  In my area, it is common to tow a vehicle from private property without notifying the police. Va. code requires tow companies to mark any property they tow from with signs indicating that parking is towing enforced. Law also requires IMMEDIATE notification to the police when a car is towed from private property. The law sets the maximum price that can be charged and requires tow companies to accept credit cards. Storage cannot be charged for the first 24 hours, but is normal to do so. Administration and processing fees are frequently charged but no explanation is provided as to what was administered or processed.


We receive calls almost every day from people trying to find their vehicles and when we tell them to call the police, they frequently state they have made the call but the police were not notified. We often advise the customer to report the car stolen, but the police will not take stolen reports. When pushed, the police state that these are civil problems and the person can go to civil court.


In my book, towing a car off private property and not notifying the police is STEALING; it allows tow companies to keep the vehicles longer. It benefits the tow service because there is no paper trail and since they demand cash only, they get away with not declaring the income on their federal or state taxes.


So, why does this bug me and why is it any of my business? (1) I get tired of constantly being called by people who cannot find their cars, (2) My business operates in accordance with the law, but the average citizen thinks that all tow companies are crooks, (3) I have to pay taxes on my income and am not able to use private property impound towing to subsidize my operations, (4) the police think of the average tow company as crooks which tars the entire industry.


After over 37 years in the towing business, I have  accepted the reality that the police are not going to enforce the law, the Internal Revenue Service is not going to audit very shady tow companies,  that the city attorney's  office, the Commonwealth Attorneys office, and the Va. Attorney General's office, and the Department of Motor Vehicles (which has statutory authority over all "towing for hire") are never going to do anything. Enforcement is so totally lacking, that most unlicensed tow operators in Virginia advertise on the internet and phone books because they know they can operate illegally and never be touched by the law.


    Ed Johnson, Coliseum Towing Service, Hampton, VA. 23666

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