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Towing companies ignite passions in General Assembly

a no parking sign in an urban area
Scott Elmquist
VPM News
A sign announces no parking along a block of Broad Street in Richmond. Towing regulations in Virginia have become a hot topic for the General Assembly.

Virginia towing companies want to hike their fees. Some lawmakers aren’t sold.

On a Sunday in late January 2022, Del. Alfonso Lopez (D–Arlington) popped into Acme Pie Company in Arlington to pick up treats for his son’s party. When he came back five minutes later, his car was already being hauled to Advanced Towing’s office.

In an interview, Lopez said he found it “very interesting” that the tow happened four days before he was set to present legislation he’d filed designed to help increase consumer protections for trespass towing. The bill failed in a House subcommittee and met the same fate this year.

Lopez’s experience was otherwise unremarkable in Arlington County, where local politicians, residents and Advanced Towing have been locked in a contentious battle over the company’s aggressive — and, critics say, predatory — enforcement of parking rules.

Its practices earned it a one-star average review on Yelp and sparked a 2020 lawsuit from former Attorney General Mark Herring. The state alleged the company’s conduct was “frequently predatory, aggressive, overreaching and illegal.” In the end, a judge found only some of the claims had merit and awarded the state a modest $750 judgment — an outcome celebrated by Advanced Towing’s combative owner, John O’Neill, who likened the case to “David vs. Goliath.”

O’Neill and other towing industry representatives are now pushing lawmakers to raise fees they’re allowed to charge drivers across the commonwealth. They argue the industry has been hit hard by inflation, and are backing legislation that would allow them to add a $30 fuel surcharge to their fees.

O’Neill did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment. But in a Feb. 2 subcommittee meeting, he choked up when describing how rising fuel prices left him uncertain whether he might be able to offer health insurance to employees, including one with cancer. O’Neill dismissed complaints against his company as “all technical in nature” and argued the industry follows the law, suggesting the dispute amounted to a vendetta from certain local and state politicians.

“They sent the attorney general after me, and I beat them,” O’Neill said, noting that he’d hired state Sen. Chap Petersen (D–Fairfax) to argue his case. “Chap Petersen absolutely destroyed the former attorney general.”

Consumer advocates like Erin Witte, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America, say predatory towing has flourished under lax oversight and favorable legal rules. In an interview, Witte argued drivers are also dealing with inflation.

“Their housing prices are going up, groceries are going up for them and then tacked on top of this is a fee for a service that they didn't even ask for,” said Witte, who took on Advanced Towing when she served as an assistant attorney general under Herring.

Witte said predatory towing exists across the commonwealth. And she argued enforcement remains hamstrung by the fact that state law leaves it up to the AG’s office to handle violations of towing laws.

“It would be impossible — and in fact, it is impossible for the attorney general to enforce all violations of that code section,” she said.

Lopez’s legislation — and a similar bill from Sen. Barbara Favola (D–Arlington) — would have changed that by making it easier for consumers to sue. But industry lobbyists argued it would saddle towing companies with frivolous lawsuits. Both bills are now dead, but the issue is likely to come up in a planned work group.

Friends and enemies

The industry has made both friends and enemies in the Legislature. The company has given lawmakers about $40,000 since 2010 — chump change compared to big-dollar donors like Clean Virginia or Dominion Energy.

But for people who feel they’ve been wrongfully towed and are frustrated by lawmakers’ inaction, the political contributions are a red flag.

Arlington resident Winny Chen told VPM News she was towed from a Giant parking lot last July. She’d planned to go to a nearby appointment and pick up some groceries, but Advanced Towing swooped in on her car shortly after she walked away from the lot. Chen, who was six months pregnant at the time, said she walked over a mile to the company’s office in 90-degree heat. Someone working for the company took photos of her leaving the lot — which she found “creepy” — and Chen said Advanced Towing’s staff were rude.

Chen felt upset about the episode and emailed local and state officials, but got nowhere.

“I was just blown away by the fact that nobody seems to be able to do anything about it,” Chen said. “And I don't know if it's maybe Advanced Towing just does a really good job at lobbying and gives a lot of money to state senators and state delegates.”

State Sen. Dave Marsden (D–Fairfax), who took in roughly $10,000 from the industry during the past year, said the money didn’t have anything to do with the fact that he initially sponsored industry-backed legislation this year to raise the cap on towing fees and prohibit localities like Arlington from setting lower limits.

“My policy is I take contributions from everyone,” said the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. “I've worked with Arlington just as much as I've worked with the towing companies.”

Earlier this month, Marsden spiked both bills. Instead, he and other committee members said in a Feb. 2 meeting that they plan to request state Secretary of Transportation W. Sheppard Miller III convene a work group with Attorney General Jason Miyares’ office and other, unnamed stakeholders to look at towing rates and consumer protections.

“We want to find a way to give people an ability to remediate a bad tow,” Marsden said. “But we want it fair, we don't want frivolous lawsuits.”

Separate bills from two Republican delegates to grant towers the right to add a $30 fuel surcharge for the next year and recoup attorney fees in some civil lawsuits remain alive in the General Assembly, but they’ll have to clear Marsden’s committee.

The Legislature is also considering a bill from Del. Dawn Adams (D–Richmond) that would allow drivers to retrieve their belongings without paying a fee within 24 hours of being towed. Separate legislation from Sen. Jeremy McPike (D–Prince William) would ban companies from towing vehicles operated by public utilities or broadband providers conducting maintenance for 72 hours. In a brief speech on the Senate floor last week, McPike said the legislation stemmed from two episodes where towing companies removed vehicles responding to a gas leak and electrical outage.

“Unfortunately, sometimes we have to legislate common sense,” McPike said.

Chen isn’t watching the legislative maneuvers closely, but she’s worried any fee increase allowed by lawmakers would just incentivize “bad behavior.” She did notch one victory, though: Last summer, Chen convinced her HOA to drop their contract with Advanced Towing.

This story is powered by the 2023 People's Agenda.

Clarification: This article previously stated Winny Chen was on her way to a doctor's appointment when her car was towed.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.