Within a week in September two famous tow companies were shut down. Chicago’s Lincoln Towning lost its license for five days and all of Detroit’s companies lost their city contracts. Each story shows a different side of the corrupt business of nonconsent tows.
Lincoln Towing has been a gang of thieves for several decades. The current owner’s lawyer reminded the NPR reporter that only the last 25 years is his client’s fault. He’s sick of hearing the song about the former owner.
People say the company crossed the line between legalized theft and actual theft. And why not? Almost nobody cares if a tow company steals your car. If you go to police they’ll tell you it’s a civil matter. When police don’t intervene, or if they are the ones who stole your car, your only recourse is to pay ransom or sue. A lawsuit in anything except small claims court costs thousands of dollars even if you win.
The calculation for tow companies is easy. If they take the wrong car and have to give it back, they are out a dollar of gas and the opportunity cost of a wasted half hour. If they take the right car, or the victim doesn’t fight back, they win a hundred dollars or more.
The math says tow everybody and if you’re an innocent victim that’s too bad. I believe the stories about Lincoln Towing because we had an even worse scam in the Boston area about 20 years ago. Tow company employees directed traffic to park in a private lot then towed the cars away. After the newspapers found out the state made the company issue refunds.
Police can be reluctant to take action against tow companies. They rely on tow companies to clear accident scenes. Car theft is much easier when police are on your side.
Which brings us to Detroit. Detroit’s companies, and Gasper Fiore’s tow empire in particular, show the problem with public tows (ordered by police).
The public tow business is more or less overtly corrupt. In my area cities and towns openly solicit kickbacks. If you want the contract for police-ordered tows you have to pay a share of the revenue to the city. Around Detroit, the money went under the table. A federal prosecutor stepped in when everybody else looked the other way.
Public or private, the problem is the same as for-profit law enforcement. When money is involved the purpose of the law is forgotten.
Want to put most predators in a cage? The reform is simple. End the right to hold cars hostage. The tow company bills the parking lot owner. The property owner can sue the driver for the actual harm done by one car spending five minutes in a half-empty lot. Public tows come out of the city budget, the same as snow removal and police patrols. The city can give you a parking ticket if you parked illegally, or bill your insurance if you caused an accident you couldn’t drive away from. Meanwhile, you have your car or whatever is left of it.
It would be a big shock to a long-established business model, but we’re surviving prison reform and marijuana legalization and we can survive criminalization of grand theft auto.
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