Los Angeles city prosecutors have filed criminal charges against four people tied to a towing operation accused of using "predatory practices" to target drivers who left cars at a Northridge parking lot.
From September 2014 to January 2015, drivers for Valley Impound Garage towed 10 vehicles from a lot abutting a small row of stores on Reseda Boulevard to another lot across the street, then demanded that drivers pay to get their cars back, according to Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer.
A criminal complaint filed Friday in L.A. County Superior Court charged the garage business owner, Steven Garcia, with 60 misdemeanors, including unlawfully taking a motor vehicle, refusing to accept payments by credit card and charging an excessive rate for towing and storage.
Two drivers for Valley Impound Garage face nine total misdemeanor charges including operating without proper city and state permits and refusing to release a car to an owner who arrived before it was towed away.
The owner of the parking lot where the cars were towed was charged with 10 misdemeanor counts of not contracting with a tow company with proper permits.
"Holding vehicles ransom and charging excessive fees for their release is an outrageous and unscrupulous business practice," Feuer said in a prepared statement. "My office will continue to crack down on predatory businesses, hold their operators accountable, and protect Los Angeles drivers."
Each count carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Garcia did not return an email seeking comment. His attorney, David Kestenbaum, said he could not comment on the charges because his client had not been served with a copy of the criminal complaint.
"I just caution the press that these complaints are made by people who have illegally parked in lots that have the required signage about parking restrictions," Kestenbaum wrote in an email.
He added that he works across the street from the Van Nuys Courthouse and watches people bypass the city's parking lot in favor of the small lot next to his law office. "People look at all the signs and decide to save $10," Kestenbaum said. "Then they lie about how long they had been there."
One driver who parked in the Northridge lot went into a hair salon and beauty supply store on Reseda Boulevard, Feuer's office said. Twenty-five minutes later, her car was towed, the office said. California law requires that tow truck drivers wait one hour before towing vehicles that are parked illegally in commercial lots.
The driver told investigators the tow truck driver demanded $120 in cash to retrieve her car "on the spot," or $280 to recover it from the tow yard in Van Nuys.
"That is the basic pattern for all the cases," city attorney spokesman Rob Wilcox said.
Eric Rose, the executive director of the Official Police Garage Assn. of Los Angeles, which represents the city's 18 licensed impound lots, said the law is clear that tow truck drivers must wait at least an hour after a vehicle is parked illegally before removing it from a commercial parking lot.
"People make mistakes, and they need to have a chance to come retrieve their cars," said Rose, whose group does not include Valley Impound Garage.
Towing companies are required to charge rates set by local governments. L.A.'s towing fee is $121. The daily fee at the impound lot is $38.
Officials said those who believe they have been towed illegally by Valley Impound Garage can contact the city attorney's office at (213) 978-8340 or the Los Angeles Police Commission's towing complaint hotline at (323) 680-4TOW