By Michael J. Pallamary
Special to the Reporter
I was in town recently, on vacation, visiting some friends and family. One Saturday morning, I stopped to grab a couple of things from College Hype. There were two cars in the 73-stall parking lot with a sign indicating that the parking spaces required a permit. Because the lot was empty, and it was a Saturday, I figured I could park for ten minutes. After all, in most states, short-term parking is permissible in situations like this.
But when I came back from the store, my car, with out of state plates, was in the process of being towed. I explained to the driver that I had only been gone for a few minutes and asked what the problem was. He said I needed a permit. I asked him where I could get a permit and he said it would cost $108 cash. I asked if he would take a credit card and he said, ‘No, it is $108 cash.’
This was a classic case of what is known as “predatory towing,” which is when a private towing company watches parking lots for individuals like me. The term refers to a combination of generally unethical practices used by some towing companies to maximize their income. These practices include using spotters to get your car towed almost as soon as you leave it; charging excessive fees for towing or storage; or making private side deals with owners of stores or parking lots to maximize towing income. These practices can result in unfair, excessive charges for the vehicle owner. It is a shakedown, a scam.
In Massachusetts, the maximum a private tow company can charge is $108. If the driver of the automobile is there when the car is being hooked up, the tow driver can, at his or her discretion, only charge one-half the fee. Unfortunately, the driver in my case insisted on the full $108.
Things are different elsewhere. In California, you cannot tow a car on private property if it has been there less than one hour. This makes sense. What if there were a medical emergency or the driver needed to pick up some medicine? There has to be some common sense at play. In California, the property has to post a notice at the entrances that improperly parked cars can be towed.
Massachusetts law under Chapter 266, 120D, which runs to more than 300 words, has as one stipulation: “No vehicle shall be removed from such way or property without the consent of the owner of such vehicle unless the person who has lawful control of such way or property shall have notified the chief of police or his designee in a city or town, or, in the city of Boston the police commissioner, or a person from time to time designated by said police commissioner, that such vehicle is to be removed.
“Such notification shall be made before any such vehicle shall be removed, and shall be in writing unless otherwise specified by such chief of police or police commissioner and shall include the address from which the vehicle is to be removed, the address to which the vehicle is to be removed, the registration number of the vehicle, the name of the person in lawful control of the way or property from which such vehicle is being removed, and the name of the person or company or other business entity removing the vehicle.”
I reached out to the BPD and there is no evidence any notice was sent to them. I have submitted a public records act request to verify the information I was provided telephonically.
The lot was not being used on the quiet Saturday morning when I made a ten-minute stop. The towing of my car was an absurd and a foolish decision by the owners. Why not charge for parking during off hours?
The section I parked in is not in the fenced area. It is on the eastern half of the lot where there are 73 spaces. Assuming for a moment that the owner is community minded, he could permit visitor/shopping parking in off hours for fees.
Michael Pallamary was raised in Dorchester. He is the president of Pallamary & Associates, a land use and consulting firm based in San Diego.