A decision is expected in Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s lawsuit against Advanced Towing within the next two weeks, a judge said after the trial’s closing arguments Wednesday.
The AG’s office is seeking $650,900 in restitution and civil penalties from Advanced Towing, as well as an injunction. The defense is asking for the case to be dismissed.
Arlington County Circuit Court Chief Judge William T. Newman is presiding over the case, which pits the Commonwealth against a widely-loathed but also widely-used, Ballston-based company that tows vehicles that are considered to be trespassing on private property.
Word of the pending ruling comes after three days of arguments, with the trial starting earlier this month and concluding this week. Wednesday’s closing arguments took just over an hour combined and were intended to crystalize their positions for the judge.
The AG’s office, represented by Assistant Attorney General Erin Witte, reiterated that Advanced Towing practices were “predatory, illegal, and dangerous” while focusing on three main arguments.
First, the employment of unregistered drivers. The AG’s office alleged that more than 10,000 tows, pulled from company records, were made over the last several years by not up-to-date or unregistered tow truck drivers. All drivers are required to be registered with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS).
While Virginia code puts the onus on individual drivers to be registered, it also states that no tow truck operators should “violate, or assist, induce, or cooperate with others to violate, any provision of law related to the offering or delivery of towing and recovery services.”
Witte argued that Advanced Towing ran afoul of this provision by allowing drivers to tow without registration, no matter their intent. There’s also no company policy to have those registrations on file.
Then, the focus shifted to alleged unsafe towing conduct with the AG’s office citing consumer, resident, and police officer testimony of spotting (and ticketing) drivers not applying safety straps when towing. Witte also noted the “unprofessional” interactions some customers had, including testimony from one man who had his car lifted at the tow yard while he was in it.
Finally, Witte spoke about the legality of the contract and towing being done at a specific shopping center parking lot, along Wilson Blvd near Ballston. The contract wasn’t kept up to date with specifics about when Advanced Towing could tow and when, the assistant AG said. The contract also wasn’t made easily available to the public, as county code stipulates, and a revised contract was once backdated before it was provided to a customer upon their request.
Additionally, the markings on individual parking spaces were unclear, particularly night, leaving customers confused, the Commonwealth argued.
In conclusion, Witte said the AG’s office is seeking restitution and civil penalties to “send a message to the defense.”
“[Advanced Towing] tows as many cars as fast as possible,” Witte said. “And acted without regard for the law or safety… we need to hold the defense accountable.”
In his closing arguments, Advanced Towing’s attorney, Chap Petersen — who’s also a state senator — defended his client from these allegations.
He noted that registering with DCJS, as well as any safety citations, are a driver’s responsibility. While the tow truck operator should be employing only registered drivers, the onus to be registered is on the individuals. If convicted, it’s a class 3 misdemeanor for drivers and they’re no longer eligible to obtain a registration or license again.
Plus, Petersen argued, no one has reported being hurt or had their car damaged by these alleged safety issues. (Critics of the company have frequently alleged that cars are damaged during tows, however.)
In terms of the Wilson Blvd parking lot contract, Petersen cited testimony from the property owner saying that John O’Neill, owner of Advanced Towing, provided services as exactly requested. (The company’s supporters often point out that being prolific at towing vehicles parked in violation on private lots its why it continues to win contracts with property owners.)
Petersen said specific changes asked for by the Wilson Blvd property owner do not need to be actually entered into the contract, only mutually agreed upon by both parties, which he said is not uncommon for commercial contracts.
In conclusion, Petersen said that the AG’s office did not provide enough evidence that Advanced Towing did anything illegal and called the lawsuit “overkill.”
He once again reasserted his belief that Virginia is trying to put Advanced Towing out of business because it provides a service that’s unpopular with members of the public.
“The [AG’s office] has proven one thing: That my client owns a towing company,” he said. “They are no better or worse than any other towing company in Virginia.”
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