The lot at the Springfield-Franconia Metro station was full at 10 a.m., Wednesday, June 26, so Laura Murphy, another mother and five children parked in the lot across from the station where TGI Fridays, Pier One Imports and Staples are located. The lot has a stairway down to the sidewalk to the Metro so they figured they were safe, but upon returning to Springfield later that afternoon, their car was nowhere to be seen.
The car was illegally parked and towed by a driver from Henry's Towing. Murphy felt she was entrapped by the tow truck driver.
"I think it's questionable ethics at best. With walkie talkies and sometimes binoculars, they got a quick $100 bucks," said Murphy.
"There's so many words and such fine print, you can't read it while driving. It's just a racket," she said describing the signs that said "No commuter parking."
Rick Quinn, a supervisor at Henry's, knows that when cars are towed, people aren't happy but he is not sympathetic.
"Most of them know they're parked illegal. We take a picture for every car we tow," he said. As far as the binoculars and walkie talkie theory, "we don't do that," he said.
"Management calls when they see people leaving the car and walking off," he said.
Chuck Anoff of Rreef Management Co. in McLean, the property manager of that shopping center, would not comment on whether Henry's was called or the trucks come by on their own.. "They do what they're supposed to do according to county regulations."
He indicated their honoring of the sign rule.
"We don't permit commuter parking there. Parking in that lot is intended for business parking," he said.
Section 82-5-32 of the Fairfax County Code states that "the property owner, operator or lessee has directly or through an agent, expressly authorized the towing of the particular vehicle, or has by a written agreement or contract, delegated to a tow company and such company's tow truck operator, the authority to make the decision to remove a trespassing vehicle without the express authorization."
TGIF manager John Norton is sympathetic to the drivers, buying them a Coke most times, and even driving them to Henry's himself on occasion. He has no idea how Henry's gets word of the illegal parking. His staff doesn't get in until 11 a.m., so the commuters are long gone. Host Chris Dizon did see tow trucks on Friday, June 28.
"They were here this morning," he said.
CAL WAGNER, with the Fairfax County Department of Cable Communications and Consumer Protections, sees the battle scars.
"No tow company can make a unilateral decision and tow a car, it must be at the discretion of a police officer," he said, referring to cars on public property. Private lots, apartments and townhouse developments are a different story, and they participate in a practice called "impound towing."
"They [property management] can sign a contract with the tow company. The authority of the contract rests with the management. There are rules and regulations, a fire lane is a public safety measure, even on property that is not under contract with for towing," he said.
Signs are important to cover the lot.
"It's absolutely essential. County code and state code require signs at the entrance," Wagner said.
To Murphy, the signs weren't adequate. The "no commuter parking" sign was not right by the stairs and the one at the entrance to the lot was so small, it was hard to read from a moving vehicle she said.
She did end up calling the property management company, who mentioned the parking at Springfield Mall garage for Metro riders.
"I learned that from the property management," she said, and then reluctantly admitted fault.
"They're in their legal rights," she said but still thinks it could have been handled better.
Wagner gets a lot of complaints.
Documenting the whole transaction with a Polaroid or digital snapshot clears up confusion but it's not required, according to Wagner.
"There is no legal requirement for a photograph. It's his word against the vehicle owner's word. There's always two sides to every complaint," he said.
A contract with an association is "Carte Blanche for the towing company to cruise day or night. That control rests with the association," he said.
Quinn again said that isn't the way his company works.
"Most times the association calls us. The state sets the limit on what to charge," he said.
There has been occasions where the car owner isn't content with paying to get the car back and they do wind up in court, after the fact.
"Maybe once or twice a year," Quinn said.
THE CITY OF FAIRFAX has its own rules on towing, according to deputy police chief Maj. Bill Klugh.
"They have to tell us when they tow, if they don't, people will think it's stolen," he said.
After the call to the police, they don't get involved except when there is a dispute at the lot, which sometimes happens according to Klugh.
"We get calls because the person's disorderly. We would just explain," he said.
Like in the county, there is a process if there's a dispute but this is always after the fee is paid up front.
"They would have to prove the tow company improperly towed their car," Klugh said.
WAYNE SPINDLE lives in the Newberry Station community in Newington that has an open-ended contract with Dominion Towing. "I've seen the truck park up the street, a guy gets out and goes up and down, checking stickers," he said.
According to the bylaws, under "Parking Rules, section E, enforcement," only vehicles "parked in the resident's space without authorization and/or any vehicle that is double-parked," can be towed. In another section of the bylaws it says tow trucks can "randomly patrol and remove any and all vehicles that are double parked or parked in fire lanes and safety zones." Then the tow companies are authorized "at the request of the President or Vice President of the Association, remove any prohibited vehicle or any vehicle parked or maintained in violations of the regulations herein." The president may only request towing "when a vehicle is an immediate threat to public safety, or after placing a notice of violation on the vehicle," which gives the owner five days to correct the problem.
FRANNMILK CARICOTE lives in Hillside Commons townhouses in Springfield. He didn't see any trucks through the neighborhood in the past but they saw him when he parked on the yellow curb one day.
"I never saw any truck companies around here; somebody called the company. My sister-in-law was here with her baby, she was using my spot for a couple of hours," he said.
After discovering his car falling victim to a tow truck, he visited the office with $120 in cash only to find out it was $115 and they had no change. Tina Delaney lives in the community as well.
"The homeowners association president has to authorize towing, that's my understanding. There has to be some sort of checks and balances," she said.
In some communities, cars are towed for dead tags and expired inspections too. Henry's does tow for dead tags but not inspections.
"Not for inspections," Quinn said.
Up the street in The Timbers townhouse community, Tina Slover doesn't think the tow trucks come around enough compared to 20 years ago when she moved in.
"I don't know why, I think they need to crack down a little. In the evening, this whole section will be full," she said.
In Supervisor Sharon Bulova's (D-Braddock) office, they get some calls from disgruntled motorists.
"I think it comes as a surprise to visitors of townhouse communities. The way a lot of these contracts work, the towing company can just tow at will," said Florence Naeve, chief of staff.