Ho, ho, tow: parking saga's odd twists
The saga of the infamous $800 tow job triggers some unexpected fallout.
Seattle Times staff columnist
For someone who has been cast as the villain of an industry — and also was just thumped in court — the guy who runs Citywide Towing didn't seem all that upset.
"You know this whole story of yours, Danny — it's been great for my business," says Naser Quadeer, Citywide manager. "Since you ran with that $800 tow, my phone has been ringing with new towing contracts."
Remember the infamous $800 tow job? It is no more. A King County District Court judge threw it out. She ruled that Citywide Towing — the company that charged the outrageous bill — has to pay it all back.
Chris Swanicke, the 25-year-old who was socked with the bill and ended up a cause célèbre to crack down on the tow industry, appealed the impound. He was assisted in his case by the towing industry itself.
The judge didn't rule the bill was too high (there's no legal limit on what a tow company can charge). But rather that the tow-away sign in the lot was obscured by a tree. And also that Citywide hadn't given Swanicke the proper forms.
"I won on a technicality," Swanicke said.
It turns out the money is a tiny loss leader for what Quadeer says is a suddenly thriving arm of Citywide's business. Thanks, apparently, to me.
"I got 41 new contracts in one day from your story," Quadeer said outside the courtroom after the verdict. He was referring to property owners who, he says, hired him after reading how much he charges.
They want you to gouge people, I asked? Quadeer shrugged.
"They are so mad about the parking problem that, yes, they feel we are best positioned to deal with it."
Citywide's posted rates of $600 an hour are more than double those of many other local tow companies. For tows off private property, the rates can be whatever they please — "a million dollars an hour, if they wanted to," a state trooper told me.
In the courtroom giving Swanicke advice on how to beat the tow was Al Runté, of Ibsen Towing in Bellevue. For decades he has helped run the Towing and Recovery Association of Washington, a trade and lobbying group.
He allowed he wasn't there just out of the goodness of his heart. He said that because of Swanicke's story, the tow industry faces a threat of new regulations in Seattle and in the state Legislature.
An association memo described the threat as a "very serious situation." It blamed much of it on "media personalities set to sensationalize the situation and journalists that open the can of worms, then let it smolder."
Holy mixed metaphor. Maybe I wouldn't have opened the can if I'd known the worms inside were on fire.
Runté said he was thrilled the $800 tow was thrown out because it shows the system works fine.
"This was an invalid impound," he said. "When we tell the whole story — that the $800 tow wasn't a righteous tow — then the elected officials will see the system already has checks and balances."
Not buying that was Swanicke — no matter how grateful he was for Runté's help.
"I got out of this because a tree happened to grow up and cover the tow sign," he said. "The worst thing to come out of me winning this case would be for people to conclude there's no problem."
You know who now agrees with him? His adversary, Citywide Towing.
Quadeer showed me copies of exorbitant bills charged by other tow companies for simple tows. One for $900. And another, by a company called All Day Towing (actual motto: "Up And Away We Go") for a dizzying $1,200.
Said Quadeer outside the courthouse: "If I'm the only bad guy, then why not let government put a cap on us? But they don't want it" — he pointed at Runté, who was huddled with us against the cold. "You know why they don't want it. Because we're not the only one."
The court hearing lasted so long that when I got back to my car, guess what — I had a parking ticket. So here's how my odyssey into the towing industry adds up so far:
The guy who parked illegally came out even. The guy who gouged him and had his tow judged illegal — his business is booming. Me? I'm out forty-four bucks.
The tow-truck guys, who had just been arguing, paused to enjoy the irony.
"Don't worry, Danny," Quadeer said. "If you get towed, we can get you off, too."
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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