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Tow trucks flaunt law when towing your vehicle

An article in the Houston Press today highlights a grey area of tow truck practice related to a black and white aspect of the law, a contravention enforcement likely overlooks as a form of professional courtesy. According to the Houstonian who brought this to the paper’s attention, Houston Police state flatly any forced entry into a vehicle is a criminal act and yet tow trucks there and chances are where you live too regularly break into cars to secure the front wheels for towing.
Posted: June 29, 2011 - 8:32PM
Author: Don Bain

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The article was precipitated by the emailed complaint that reported employees of Fast Tow using a “slim-jim” to unlock the doors of a car they were preparing to tow. It was parked in a what was a “No Parking Zone” at night.

Craig Malisow, author of the report, figured it would be easy to determine the legality of this act, but had no idea what he would find.

Jeanette Rash, owner of the Houston company, quotes a federal statute to justify the company’s forced entry into cars and instructs her 27 drivers to straighten a vehicle's steering mechanism before they tow it. In her eyes, the statute gives her drivers every right get into your car however they can.

The part of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's towing regulations Rash is referring to states: "Unless the steering mechanism is adequately locked in a straight forward position, all motor vehicles towed by means of a saddle-mount shall be towed with the front end mounted on the towing vehicle." The agency comes under the umbrella of the Department of Transportation.

"In order for you to do that, you've got to open the vehicle to make sure that the steering wheel is locked and in place," Rash said, in regard to locking the steering mechanism.

However, motor carriers in Texas are regulated by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. Last December they circulated the following advisory to the operations within their oversight: "Tow operators are not authorized to make entry into a motor vehicle for purposes of towing the vehicle under the non-consent tow provisions of Occupations Code 2308. Use of a 'slim jim' or other device is not authorized under the towing statute or rules."

Not surprisingly, the Federal statute Rash relies on only applies to interstate motor carriers who have to be Federally licensed and regulated. "That doesn't give you license to break into the car," a spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reported told the Houston Press. "In an emergency, I could see that, but you know... for somebody's expired meter, that doesn't give you license to break into a car."

When advised of this Rash replied: "They need to talk to DPS, who enforces motor carrier rules and regulations in Texas, because we have to secure the vehicle to safely tow it. Now how do you do that if you don't unlock the vehicle..." She also claimed expertise in the field due to her position on the Tow Truck Advisory Board in Austin.

DPS Spokesman Tom Vinger reportedly responded "the particular regulation is only a requirement for federally regulated commercial vehicles and does not grant authority for any other actions."

When contacted the Houston Police Department simply referred them to the Harris County District Attorney's Office, who explained in an e-mail that "our office does not disburse advisory opinions."

Ultimately most tow truck drivers will agree with Rash’s assessment and the practice is actually common. Rash herself admitted there is no statute that specifically allows her to break into your car.

It’s all just as clear as coffee grounds.

So tow truck drivers around the country routinely break the law to perform their job. It would seem this would provide a viable defense for someone whose car is towed – that their constitutional protections against illegal search, entry and seizure were violated. The tow company could actually be guilty of violating your constitutional rights by breaking into and seizing your property without due process of law.

However, we must add “TorqueNews does not disburse advisory opinions. “

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Anonymous (not verified)    June 30, 2011 - 10:55AM

The reporter got his car towed and this is his way of getting back. There is no law that says a tow truck cant open a car before towing it .There is federal law that says before towing a car the tow truck drive must secure it for safety.