PSI: Charlotte vows to get tough with 'predatory' towing

By Jamie Boll - bio l email

Produced by Jeff Keene - email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Nolan Sanderson has a towing horror story.

"It was after midnight, came beating on my truck," recalled Sanderson.  "(He) says my truck has been booted for parking on private property."

It happened to the Texas semi-truck driver near the Waffle House off Interstate 85 in Shelby, NC.   Sanderson had just eaten and fallen asleep in the cab of his big rig.  He was told it would be a $100 to get the boot off, but he only had $50 in his wallet.

"They said 'You're going to have to go with one of us to make arrangements to pay within 30 days,'"  said Sanderson.

He left his truck behind and hopped in a vehicle which belonged to the man with the towing company.  Sanderson says they made their way down a myriad of back roads before arriving in Charlotte.  Sitting in the lot was his semi.

"They said it'll be $1,850 to get it out today," said Sanderson.  "So, I went from $100 dollars to $1,850 in a matter of hours."

Harvey Walkup has a similar story.   He is a truck driver from Colorado.  He was visiting his sister in Gastonia over the Thanksgiving weekend and parked his semi at the Forest Brook Shopping Center on Union Road.

He always parked there when he's in town because the owner gives him permission.  The morning after Thanksgiving, Walkup went to check on his truck.

"It was gone," said Walkup.

His truck was taken to Complete Wrecker on Little Rock Road in Charlotte which is the same place Sanderson's truck was towed to.  Walkup was told he would have to pay $1,950 to get his semi back.

"It takes a bite out of my Christmas and puts a couple ho, ho, ho's in theirs," said Walkup.

Jennifer Davis is the property manager for Forest Brook Shopping Center.  She says she called Complete Wrecker the morning after Walkup was towed and told the company Walkup had permission to be there.

Complete Wrecker knocked the ticket down to $975.

"They're laughing all the way to the bank," said Walkup.

Complete Wrecker is no longer located at the address on Little Rock Road.

"News crews put me out of business," explained Complete Wrecker Manager Randy Plemmons.

Plemmons says his company had the right to tow both semis.  He says Complete Wrecker had contracts to patrol the lots.   In Walkup's case, Plemmons said he wasn't told anyone had permission to park there.   He says he cut the bill in half because of the confusion.

In Sanderson's case, Plemmons says he should have had $100 to remove the boot.

The two cases put a spotlight on rising frustrations over what Charlotte City Councilman Patrick Cannon calls predatory towing.

WBTV showed Cannon not only what happened to the truckers, but also the video captured in previous "Problem Solver" investigations.

United Towing charged a $50 dollar "drop" fee outside the Starbucks on East Boulevard in Charlotte.

"No, you cannot do that," said Cannon while watching our video.  "It's totally against the city ordinance."

Charlotte City ordinance says if the person in control of the vehicle arrives back before the tow, the tow truck company must release the vehicle at no cost.

United Towing's owner says his company doesn't charge "drop" fees, despite what appeared on camera when the tow truck driver clearly said he was charging a "drop" fee.

"Maybe what it's telling me is the ordinance, in essence, is a joke,"  said Cannon.

Cannon is promising changes to ordinance.  He's looking at increasing fines for violations of the ordinance.

"We're going to make sure that predatory towing is taken very seriously," said Cannon.

He also wants to close loopholes.  He says $120 is the most that can be charged to tow a car in the city of Charlotte.  There are no limits for semis.  Some communities max it out at $300.

Remember, Nolan Sanderson paid almost $2,000.

"Its highway robbery," said Sanderson.

There are other problems as well.  Charlotte can only regulate tows originating here.  The truck drivers we talked to were hit up in other cities that don't have towing ordinances at all.

Cannon says he'll try to get neighboring communities to follow Charlotte's lead to create some uniformity across the region.  Cannon says he understands it may lead to a fight with some towing companies.

"I welcome that pushback because look, right is right, wrong is wrong and this is totally wrong," said Cannon.

Charlotte City Council's public safety committee meets again in March.  The towing ordinance will be near the top of the agenda.