It was Saturday night, about 10 p.m., and my fiancée and I were in the mood for ice cream. We were close to Allston Village, home to one of our favorite shops, so we swung by. But as is often the case in that part of the city, it was impossible to find a parking space.
The parking lot of nearby Twin Donuts, however, was completely empty, the store having long closed for the night. True, there were “Private Property — Do Not Park — You’ll Be Towed” signs posted in the yard. But we were just getting take-out ice cream, a 10-minute stop. Even if someone noticed us, we’d be long gone before a tow truck could get there, I thought.
Well, you know what happens next. With desserts in hand, we emerge from the ice cream store and see my car standing on its two back wheels, already hooked to a tow truck. Like a spider on a web, the tow guy had staked out the doughnut shop, just waiting for a chump like me to come flying in.
I jumped into action. Handing my ice cream to my fiancée, I bolted for the tow truck, clicking my automatic car-starter button in the hopes it would surprise the tow operator and stop him from leaving. I reached him in time, quickly offering $50 in cash for him to put my car down — anything to avoid spending hours retrieving my car from some forsaken tow lot.
As I was already hooked up, he said, he had to call his dispatcher for approval. Eventually, he took the cash and put my car down. On the way home, my fiancée and I joked about eating the most expensive ice creams of our lives.
Most of us have had our cars towed at some point. But if you’re like me, it’s such a rare event that you don’t really know that much about the process.
The tow-truck driver acted as though he was doing me a favor by releasing my car. But legally speaking, did he have a right to tow me if I was standing in front of him, with my car engine running thanks to my automatic starter? At what point do you lose control of your vehicle to a tow operator: When it is on his tow lift, or when he’s driven off the property with it?
With desserts in hand, we emerge . . . and see my car standing on its two back wheels, already hooked to a tow truck.
Can a tow-truck operator remove a car without being asked by the property’s owner?
And should you tow an all-wheel-drive car, such as mine, with its two back wheels on the ground?
Let’s find out.
I went back to the doughnut shop a few days later to see whether there were any security cameras in the parking lot, and found none. So unless the shop’s manager was walking by at 10 p.m. that Saturday and saw my car, the tow operator acted on his own.
According to state towing laws, technically, he’s not supposed to do that.
“No vehicle shall be removed unless the . . . person with lawful control of the way or property notifies the appropriate police official,” reads Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 266, Section 120D.
In reality, though, the law is commonly bent to allow tow companies to act on the behalf of property owners with whom they do business, said Framingham lawyer Brian Simoneau, who focuses on motor-vehicle law.
“They act as agents of the owner and they are placed ‘in control’ of such way or property for towing purposes,” he said.
Larry Wilt, a longtime tow operator with Phil’s Towing and Recovery Services of Peabody, calls the practice “hunting.”
“The property manager tells the tow company, ‘You know, between 8 o’clock at night and 5 in the morning, I want you guys to come down to my yard three times,’ or, ‘I want you guys to come down to my yard 25 times,’
Wilt said his company rarely does “trespass’’ tows. When his drivers do, even before removing the car, they file a report with the police.
“It’s a state law in Massachusetts that if you’re going to perform a trespass tow, or a repossession, you have to go through the local police first,” he said. “When my trespass account calls me, at whatever time, I ask them, ‘Can I have the plate number, the color of the car, and what kind of car is it?’
“The Police Department is 3 miles away. I hand them a towing invoice with the information on it. I then leave the police station and go to the customer’s lot. The police station now knows I’m taking whatever car from that lot.”
Wilt says he notifies the police, in part, for his own protection. As you might imagine, he occasionally encounters angry car owners. But tow operators also notify police to make it clear that a vehicle hasn’t been stolen.
Once again, the state’s towing laws are open to some interpretation. Chapter 266 reads, “Consent or police notification must occur before any vehicle is removed,’’ and “shall be in writing unless otherwise specified by such chief of police.” The key words, of course, are “in writing.”
Clearly, my tow guy didn’t have time to stop by a police station to drop off a written report before hooking me. His dispatch office could have faxed a report to the police station. But even that would have taken a few minutes, enough time for me to have returned to my car.
I called the Boston Police Department to ask about it. Sergeant Michael McCarthy, a department spokesman, told me that Boston waives the writing requirement (likely because of the large number of tows it sees). Instead, tow companies are required to call a special phone line before removing a vehicle.
“The tow companies are in compliance with the law if they contact the designated number prior to towing,” McCarthy said.
My driver probably had time to do that, which means he would have followed the rules. But my tale isn’t over.
Could he have driven away with my vehicle, or did he have to release it at my request? How much should he have charged me? And what about my all-wheel drive? Those answers, next time.