I visited some supposed villains this week. What I found instead was a family.
This family – the owners of Evergreen State Towing, a company I myself have helped to demonize – paid a steep price for their supposed villainy. Their exoneration in court this month still leaves them a long way from where they were before they towed some 40 cars during Hoopfest 2010.
“People call us up and say, ‘You’re crooks, just like the newspaper said,’ ” said Kent Meyers, 56, who owns Evergreen with his wife, Debbie Reid. “We were thinking about retiring in a couple years. That’s gone.”
At Hoopfest two years ago, Evergreen towed some 40 cars away from private lots; drivers were furious and complained that it had been a predatory towing scheme. Notably, one of the drivers towed was a Spokane police officer; the department pursued an investigation into the claims. Eventually the Department of Licensing ruled that Evergreen had broken the law, and the department pursued a penalty that would amount to a death sentence: a five-year suspension of its towing license and $40,000 in fines.
Media coverage of the case helped reinforce a public perception that the company had been put out of business, when in fact it was fighting the charges. In part because no one – not the company or an attorney or a property owner – ever spoke up in defense, Evergreen seemed unquestionably guilty. I sure felt that way, and shared that feeling.
Evergreen hauled the state to court – and won. Last Friday, a Superior Court judge ruled in their favor, arguing that the company’s drivers had obtained proper authorization to tow away the cars. So Evergreen will keep its license and avoid the fine – though their legal bills exceeded it. And while they’ve managed to hang onto their business, they’ve lost a lot of customers and gone from 15 drivers to eight.
“We had to lay off two of my kids – no, three of my kids,” Meyers said.
The case centered on whether Evergreen’s drivers had obtained legal authorization to tow the vehicles, primarily from properties owned by Harlan Douglass and Keith Scribner. State law requires that drivers get written authorization to tow each car; the state and city police investigator alleged that Evergreen had obtained pre-signed, blanket authorizations in advance and was engaged in predatory towing.
Evergreen argued that it had obtained authorizations in the manner that is routine throughout the industry; a state towing industry representative agreed with that in sworn testimony. The property owners had been present, had filled out most of the forms and verbally identified which cars to tow; the drivers filled out one portion of the form including the license plate number and/or Vehicle Identification Number.
The state, even after coming to accept this as the accurate description of what happened, insisted this was improper. If the property owner didn’t fill out the complete form, how could officials be sure the towing was done properly? But Evergreen’s attorney, Sean O’Quinn, argued successfully that the property owners had given clear authority to tow specific cars and that state law had no requirement for more.
“At the end of the day, Evergreen did follow the rules,” O’Quinn said. “I just think there were a lot of upset people over having their cars towed during Hoopfest.”
It seemed then – and seems now – to have been a petty, mean-spirited act on the part of the property owners. If people parking in their empty lots were such a burden, they could have taken steps to keep them out. But that does not speak to Evergreen’s actions; they did what they do, and they did it legally.
For Evergreen, the ruling comes as a massive, if qualified relief. Meyers and Reid purchased the company in 2000, going into debt and putting everything on the line. It’s not an easy business – it’s tightly regulated and it’s often unpopular. A tow company faces an almost constant stream of angry people and finds itself in court defending its practices on a regular basis. This, Meyers says, makes him very careful to make sure the paperwork is filed correctly.
Evergreen, with offices on Spokane’s North Side, had grown to seven trucks by 2010, and it had just purchased a semi; they’d also leased property in the Spokane Valley and were ready to expand.
The state’s actions against them put a halt to that. Because of the penalty hanging over their head, they couldn’t secure law enforcement business in the Valley, so the expansion was put on hold. They had to let employees go; Meyers was forced to get back in a truck himself.
“We’re a small family business,” he said. “This thing has really hurt us, when we know we didn’t do anything wrong.”