November 5, 2010 in City

Vestal: Foul called on Evergreen towing

By The Spokesman-Review
Kathy Plonka photo

Duane Oliver talked in Coeur d’Alene on Thursday about the towing of his car after Hoopfest.
(Full-size photo)

Sometimes, the refs make the right call.

First, the owners of Evergreen State Towing, in collaboration with two property owners, set out to tow scores of cars parked downtown for Hoopfest, charging people several hundred bucks each to get them back. Then, faced with court challenges from some of those people, the company caved and wrote off their impoundment fees.

Now the state has charged Evergreen with breaking the law and proposed a whopping punishment: a $38,000 fine and a five-year revocation of its license. It would be the company’s second punishment this year, after it was fined $5,000 and had its license suspended for five days over charges of improper towing and auctioning of cars.

The current fine isn’t final. Evergreen can ask for a hearing. But if it stands, it sounds like final would be the right word for it.

“It’s pretty stiff,” said Duane Oliver, one of the people caught up in the Hoopfest towing, “but it’s well-deserved.”

Oliver was one of 38 people towed from two downtown lots June 26 and 27 during Hoopfest. An initial police investigation identified more victims and a third location, but those cases weren’t included in the statement of charges issued Wednesday by the state Department of Licensing.

Evergreen violated the law by using pre-signed authorization forms from the landowners to justify the towing, the state Department of Licensing said. To prevent just such opportunistic towing, state law requires landowners to approve impoundments individually, not to issue blanket authorizations or allow towing companies to act as their agents.

The people who parked in the lots, as well as the Spokane police officer who investigated the case, said that while the lots were private, they were not prominently marked as required by law. At one lot, several victims said, large trucks were parked in front of the only signs. A suspicious person might suspect a scam.

“I’ve heard of it happening in previous years at Hoopfest,” said Oliver. “Same company, doing the same exact thing. From more than one person.”

None of the people responsible for the towing returned calls seeking comment – not Evergreen owner Kent Meyers, nor the two property owners.

The Department of Licensing has no authority over landowners, and its investigation focused only on the actions of the company. The towing occurred at two lots: 123 N. Division St., a vacant lot owned by Harlan Douglass, and 603 W. Third Ave., the former Picnic Company restaurant, owned by Keith Scribner through Pinnacle Property Investments.

Nobody was using those lots, and it’s hard to understand why someone wouldn’t just shrug off a little parking during a big community weekend. If you didn’t want people in there, you’d put up big NO PARKING signs, wouldn’t you? And if you wanted to make a little money, you’d charge people to park there, wouldn’t you?

Instead, these guys gathered their pre-signed authorizations and laid in wait.

The penalties are among the toughest the DOL has issued for towing violations, said spokeswoman Christine Anthony. The agency revokes a license perhaps once a year.

“Our job is certainly to keep people in business,” she said. “So we only recommend a revocation when something’s been done that’s egregious.”

I first wrote about the case back in July, after attending a packed court hearing of people challenging the impoundments. I promptly heard from readers who said they’d been shadily towed, as well, some of them at previous Hoopfests.

I also got an e-mail from someone who sounded an awful lot like they had first-hand knowledge of the case, though they didn’t use their real name or anything crazy like that. The people who parked in those lots GOT WHAT THEY DESERVED, this writer said. EVERYONE knows those lots are private!! How STUPID do you have to be to park there????

Not stupid enough, apparently.

They actually look kinda smart.

Oliver’s story is similar to a lot of the victims. A Coeur d’Alene man who volunteered for Hoopfest, he arrived at the abandoned Picnic Company parking lot at 7 a.m. Seeing other cars there, he thought it would be OK to park in the lot. While Evergreen signs were posted there, they’re the kind of signs you see at parking lots all over town.

After 12 hours of volunteer work, Oliver returned to find his 1997 Nissan truck had been towed. He had to have his wife drive over from Coeur d’Alene to take him to Evergreen, where he paid almost $400 to get the truck back. He said he noticed at the time that the company didn’t seem to be doing things properly – backdating a document, failing to provide him information about his rights to challenge the fee – and when he brought it up, he said the guy at the counter cursed him out.

“I was called an a-hole and whatever,” he said.

He drove back to Spokane to file a request for a hearing, and then returned for the hearing itself. He got his money back, but doesn’t feel like he necessarily got what he deserved.

“We got nothing for our pain and suffering – they really put us out,” he said.

A Spokane Valley woman, Krystal Gilbert-Bedard, was towed from the lot on Division. Because she didn’t have the money to get her car out over that weekend, her impoundment fees shot up to $440 by the following Monday. She used her rent money to get her car back, and had to ask for an advance at work to get out of the hole.

“They did tow a lot of people for basically no reason,” she said. “I think they kind of deserve what they got.”

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

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