The Hoopfest towing case is moving on to a new court.
Now a Superior Court judge will decide whether Evergreen State Towing has committed violations of the law egregious enough to warrant the “corporate death penalty” – a five-year revocation of its license – or whether it has been the victim of unwarranted assumptions and nit-picky interpretations of law by state regulators.
Some 21 months after Towfest – in which Evergreen and a few downtown property owners collaborated on towing dozens of vehicles during the annual 3-on-3 basketball tournament – an unexpected question has emerged: Is it possible that Evergreen, seemingly such a garish villain in the tale, is actually a victim?
That’s probably going a bit far. But several assumptions in the early versions of the story now look flawed. And the key assumption in the investigation – one that was reported in this column on more than one occasion – now looks to be at least arguable, if not flatly incorrect.
A quick recap: Over Hoopfest weekend, Evergreen towed 40 cars from downtown lots. Lots of people complained, including a police sergeant, Mark Griffiths. An investigation followed. Early on, police and licensing officials said that the towing had been improper and predatory, done with pre-signed authorization forms. The law prohibits that, requiring property owners to be present and to issue a signed authorization specifically identifying particular vehicles to be towed.
A bunch of people challenged the towing fees in court, arguing the company had failed to give them proper notice of their right to challenge the charges. Evergreen caved quickly and gave them back their money. The state Department of Licensing issued a ruling revoking Evergreen’s license; an administrative law judge overturned the ruling; and the head of the department then upheld the ruling, with some modifications to the facts.
Sean O’Quinn, Evergreen’s attorney, took the case to court this week. He says investigators and licensing officials had such a deep-seated assumption of guilt that investigators never closely examined their central claim: that property owners had not been present during towing and had issued improper blanket authorizations for towing.
O’Quinn presented witness testimony and photographic evidence that representatives of property owners Harlan Douglass and Keith Scribner were present, and had signed the forms and verbally indicated which cars they wanted towed. What they didn’t do is fill out the rest of the information on the forms, and stick around for the towing itself.
Which seems like a much different kettle of fish.
It is still possible, if not likely, that the whole thing was a gotcha operation, a preplanned predation. More than one person expressed the unproved suspicion that it was a kickback scheme for property owners, including the investigating police officer, but the state does not make that allegation or even have any authority over what the property owners did.
It strikes me that if property owners were truly so troubled by this entirely predictable parking, they could have taken other steps to prevent it – such as blocking off the lots and posting noticeable signs, which they didn’t do – or charged exorbitant prices to allow parking, which plenty of other people do.
That’s not what they did. On a weekend where such parking was utterly guaranteed to happen, they prepared to tow a bunch of people and then did it, charging them hundreds of dollars at a pop, creating enormous inconvenience and expense. It’s hard not to see it as opportunistic and carefully orchestrated.
But laws are particular things. The details matter.
“The Department of Licensing never actually talked to the witnesses,” O’Quinn said. “They never even talked to the property owners to ask if they had been there. They assumed they had not.”
Christine Anthony, DOL spokeswoman, said the agency has always held the forms had to be filled out completely by property owners. That’s how property owners prove they’re following the law.
“If the authorizing person isn’t filling out the entire form, there’s no way to determine whether the tow operator was handed a stack of forms with the signature on it,” she said.
Also, Evergreen has broken DOL rules in the past, paying a $5,000 fine for improper towing and falsely recording figures on an abandoned vehicle form.
For now, the latest penalty is on hold, pending Evergreen’s challenge in Superior Court.
Is this a death penalty case? I’m sure many of the people towed on that day would say yes. The whole shebang seemed – on one of Spokane’s premier days – petty and mean-spirited, if not worse. O’Quinn says his clients were doing what they were hired to do, and thought they were doing it properly.
“This is a family business,” he said. “It’s an unpopular business. Nobody likes to have their car towed. But at the end of the day, there is a need to have vehicles towed sometimes and private property owners are going to pay someone to have vehicles towed. … This is not a just result.”