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Originally published Wednesday, December 26, 2012 at 6:47 PM

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Tow-truck firms sue over Seattle's cap on fees

Towing operators have filed a lawsuit against the city of Seattle over its cap on towing rates, saying city laws can't be inconsistent with state law.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The state association of tow-truck operators is suing the city of Seattle over its efforts to cap the sometimes exorbitant fees towing companies charge to remove a vehicle from private property.

In a suit filed in King County Superior Court, the Towing and Recovery Association of Washington argues that the city cannot adopt regulations that are inconsistent with state law regulating towing and impound fees.

The City Council in September unanimously approved an ordinance to cap towing and impound fees. Mayor Mike McGinn and Councilmember Nick Licata introduced the legislation in response to highly publicized reports about tows that exceeded $800 and in some cases, even $2,000.

The law set a limit of $183 per hour for the first hour of an impound tow off private property and $130 per hour for any additional time.

The lawsuit asks the court to stop the city from enforcing the cap on towing fees, which went into effect Nov. 1.

"The big problem with what the City Council did is that it's pre-empted by state law. What the city should have done is go to the state and change the law," said Phil Talmadge, the lawyer representing the towing association.

The city did try to lobby the state Legislature in the 2012 session to cap towing rates at a flat $250, but the towing industry succeeded in killing the bill.

State law requires tow companies to post their rates with the Department of Licensing, but the state has no power to disapprove them. The highest rate posted is $650 an hour.

"We worked with the City Attorney's Office to craft legislation that would stand up in court," Licata said.

Still, the councilman added, "I'm not surprised by the lawsuit, since representatives from the towing industry had expressed this belief (that the Seattle ordinance is contrary to state law) while we lobbied the state Legislature. It's unfortunate that some in the towing industry will oppose this reasonable and fair approach to regulating their industry."

The city Department of Finance and Administrative Services, which administers towing regulations, said similar legal arguments were made unsuccessfully after Portland in 2003 restricted towing charges.

At the time, Portland was trying to implement a cap on fees that could be called predatory. The courts upheld the ordinance, said Denise Movius, deputy director of Finance and Administrative Services.

The argument used by the Washington towing association — that state and federal laws governing towing and impound fees pre-empt city law — is the same one used by gun-rights advocates to strike down the city's 2009 ban on firearms in city parks and community centers.

But state gun laws specifically prohibit cities from adopting more restrictive or inconsistent firearms regulations, Movius said. That same pre-emption language doesn't exist in the state statute governing towing fees, she said.

Talmadge, the towing association's attorney, said the city ordinance contains many provisions inconsistent with state law. The state pre-emption exists so citizens aren't subject to a patchwork of rules.

"What if Burien, Tukwila, Renton all adopted different towing regulations? Tow-truck operators would have to comply with all the different ordinances. We need some uniformity."

Talmadge said his clients agree that an $800 bill for a single tow is exorbitant.

"The remedy is to go to the state and change the law," he said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.

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