It's a heart-sinking feeling to return to your parking space and find your car gone. Maybe you noticed the sign warning that the lot was only for patrons of a particular business, but you figured, hey, there are plenty of open spaces, and I'll only be gone for a little while. Maybe the business was even closed. No harm, right? Next thing you know, you're shelling out for a cab to an impound lot somewhere — and then shelling out a whole lot more in fees to get your car back. The efficiency of the trespass towing business in Baltimore can seem awfully heartless when you're on the wrong end of it.

But think about it from the other perspective for a moment. You own a business in a neighborhood where parking is scarce, and you're paying a fortune to provide and maintain a parking lot for your customers. Why should you have to put up with people parking there to go to some other business, no matter what the circumstances? Nobody would park in a stranger's driveway just because they think no one is home. City code requires that if businesses enforce their parking rules through towing, they must conspicuously post signs stating that fact and the name, address and phone number of the place where violators will be towed. If the motorist has been warned, why should he or she get any sympathy?

Where that line of reasoning breaks down is in the role of the third party in this situation: the trespass towing company. These firms are licensed by the city to enforce private parking restrictions, and the way the system works tilts the scales against drivers without necessarily providing real benefits to property owners. City Councilman Robert Curran is pushing for reforms to make the system fairer and less punitive. He's introduced similar legislation before only to see it fail under pressure from the politically well-connected towing firms, but his cause remains just.

Few would begrudge a business owner who called a towing company to have an unauthorized car removed from a lot, but that's not necessarily how trespass towing works. The companies are allowed to "patrol" lots, and depending on their contracts, they may not contact a property owner or manager at all before towing. It's an entrepreneurial trade, to be sure, and a lucrative one: Currently, trespass towers in Baltimore can charge as much as $460 per tow, generally in cash. The tower may (but isn't required to) offer motorists who come upon them in the act the chance to pay a "drop fee" of up to half that much for merely engaging the vehicle for a tow — that is, lifting the wheels off the ground — even if it hasn't moved an inch.

The towers who profit handsomely from this enterprise are the ones who decide whether a car warrants towing, and the motorist is rendered powerless. He or she has to pay to get the car back, and the only recourse for those who feel they have been towed unjustly is to appeal to the towing board, which typically meets quarterly.

Even in cases where a car is towed for a clear-cut violation, there is no earthly reason that motorists should have to pay $460 to get their cars back. Mr. Curran wants to set a limit identical to the $250 cap in Baltimore County. Towers there predicted ruination when the county imposed its limits a decade ago, but life — and parking enforcement — go on. Howard County has a maximum fee of just $150.

The second part of Mr. Curran's proposal is likely to be even more controversial. He wants the city to devise a set of standards for when a trespass tow is warranted (blocking a fire lane, for example) and when it's not. In the latter category, he has in mind things like a car parked over the line between spaces in a lot, parking during a snow emergency or during times when businesses are closed. The specifics of any such regulations would require a great deal of consideration and debate, but that exercise in itself would be valuable.

Trespass towing is a legitimate business that serves a purpose. But it is also one whose potential for abuse calls for careful regulations and limits. Other jurisdictions have managed to find a balance that protects the interests of property owners without gouging motorists. Baltimore City can, too.


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