July 23, 2010 in City

Impound company reaped when it towed

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Christopher Anderson photo

Krystal Gilbert-Bedard waits for court to start and Judge Patti Walker to rule on her civil case concerning having her car towed. Gilbert’s was one of 17 cases concerning vehicles being towed over Hoopfest weekend.
(Full-size photo)

Hoopfest Saturday is a bit like a holiday.

But it was positively Christmas this year for one local towing company, and Santa’s bag was overflowing. Unfortunately, 42 people who came to play, watch or volunteer at Hoopfest got Scrooged.

Evergreen State Towing hauled cars from essentially vacant lots at the behest of two landowners and a business manager on June 26, according to Spokane police Officer Max Hewitt. The lots had few or no visible signs posted, and the towing appears to have violated several requirements of state law.

Not to mention the spirit of simple decency.

Hewitt investigated complaints arising from Towfest. He said the towing violated a number of regulations, including a requirement that property owners authorize each towing, as opposed to a blanket edict, and a requirement that the tow company let people know they can challenge the fees in court. He is forwarding his reports to the Department of Licensing, which oversees tow-truck operators.

“The more I got into it, the more I discovered,” Hewitt said. “I feel like these people have been victimized.”

Krystal Gilbert-Bedard was one of the unfortunate 42. A 21-year-old Spokane Valley woman, she parked in a gravel lot at the corner of Division and Main Saturday afternoon and went to watch some basketball. The lot was not marked “No Parking,” and the few Evergreen signs were blocked by other vehicles, according to several people.

When she returned about 6 p.m., her 1997 Dodge Neon was gone.

What followed was a complicated juggling act in which she had to arrange a way to pick up her son and try to scare up the money for the impound fee. By the time she could do that, it was Monday, the fee had risen to $440, and she had to ask her boss for an advance to cover her rent, she said.

And she was one of the lucky ones. She and 16 others challenged the towing in court Wednesday. The company caved and agreed to repay the impound fees and the $73 court costs for each of the challenged cases.

The other 25 who were towed – some of whom came from out of state – will just have to consider their $300-some impound fees a donation to the Evergreen Christmas fund. The deadline to challenge it has passed.

Towfest occurred at three locations:

• A gravel lot at 123 N. Division owned by Harlan Douglass.

• An empty lot at the former Picnic Company at 603 W. Third Ave., owned by Keith Scribner through Pinnacle Property Investments.

• An unused lot at the former Hollywood Video at 922 N. Division, owned by Fam Properties 1 LLC, which is owned by Frank and Anne Marie DeCaro. (Frank DeCaro declined comment, but he did not initiate the towings on his property; that was done by a representative of a neighboring business that leases property there.)

Going into Hoopfest, anyone with a frontal lobe and a bit of flat land near downtown knows what to expect. You could charge $20 a car for parking, and you’d fill up instantly.

If you desperately don’t want people parking on your land, it seems you would post huge signs telling people to keep away. I mean, Douglass knows something about big signs – seven years ago he used billboards and readerboards to encourage businesses not to move to Spokane because of its supposedly anti-business environment – and yet all he managed in this case were a handful of small Evergreen signs, hidden behind parked trucks, according to several people. The other parking lots – at defunct businesses with large “For Lease” signs – also had a handful of Evergreen signs up, a bit more visibly.

But these tow-company signs are up all over town. They’re up at your grocery store, probably. They do not scream “No Parking” in the volume you would use if you truly were trying to keep people out.

It’s almost as if these property owners wanted people to park there.

“There’s no signs anywhere that prohibit parking or trespassing,” Hewitt said.

Once Hoopfest came and the inevitable happened, Evergreen sprang into action. In one case, Hewitt said, a landowner provided a stack of pre-signed authorizations for towing.

I’m certain there’s a fantastic reason – apart from profiteering – that the landowners and Evergreen were all-systems-go on this particular Saturday.

But Evergreen’s management would not talk to me, nor would the company’s lawyer. Neither Douglass nor a representative of his property company would talk to me. Messages left for Scribner were not returned.

So we’re left to wonder: What’s up with all that towing? Evergreen made a lot of money, sure, but they didn’t just swoop down on those lots out of the blue.

Why, oh why, would these landowners get all tow-crazy? What could the reason possibly be?

Under Washington law, a tow-truck operator can’t pay a property owner for impounding a vehicle. Hewitt said he investigated whether some form of “kickback” was involved, but he could not prove it.

The measure of justice that emerged in District Court on Wednesday was reassuring but modest. Duane Oliver, a Hoopfest volunteer from Coeur d’Alene, had to make three extra trips to Spokane to challenge his case. Corrinne Knobel, whose 16-year-old son parked to play in the tournament, said the whole incident was aggravating, at a time when the city was trying to celebrate.

“I just thought it was really disheartening, because it’s Spokane, Hoopfest, everybody’s down there to play,” said Knobel, whose impound fees reached $435. “Why couldn’t they support the city?”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.


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