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Predatory towing targeted under new bill inspired by Advanced Towing case

Advanced Towing truck (file photo)

A proposed bill, inspired by the former Virginia Attorney General’s lawsuit and case against Advanced Towing, would allow residents and localities better ability to protect themselves against bad acting towing companies.

“The Virginia code as it relates to towing is a mess. It’s all over the place,” says Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49), who introduced the bill last week (Jan. 18). “My hope is to improve the towing statute and get more relief for customers harmed by the towing industry.”

Basically, HB 1218 amends the law to allow individuals and localities to pursue alleged illegal towing practices under the Virginia Consumer Protection Act. As the law currently stands, the violations are solely enforceable and civil penalties can only be sought by the AG’s office.

What’s more, the law currently allows for a maximum fine for each violation of only $150, which is how Advanced Towing ended up with only a $750 fine for five violations.

By moving portions of the code to be enforced under the Virginia Consumer Protection Act, it would allow for fines to be at least $500 or $1,000 per violation.

Additionally, it makes the code enforceable across the entire Commonwealth as opposed to limiting enforcement to only tows that happen in Planning District 8, which covers Northern Virginia.

Lopez, who represents a large swath of South Arlington, says he hears from constituents “regularly” about alleged predatory towing practices taking place in Arlington and across the region.

“This clarifies [the code], makes it cleaner, much more readable,” says Lopez. “There would be meaningful civil penalties that are not limited to Northern Virginia. More importantly, there could finally be individual enforcement rather than solely enforcement through the AG’s office.”

This isn’t the first time in recent years that lawmakers have attempted to help residents when it comes to towing ordinances.

This is a similar situation to the bill that Lopez introduced last year and eventually became law that allows localities to have greater say over the granting of liquor licenses.

In October, then-Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring took Arlington-based Advanced Towing to trial over alleged “predatory,” illegal, and unsafe towing practices.

A month later, a decision was handed down that lent merit to some of the AG’s office claims against Advanced Towing but not all of them. The court denied a request for a permanent injunction while issuing a fine of $750.

Advanced Towing owner John O’Neill told ARLnow in December that the decision “vindicated” his company and called the AG’s case “blackmail” and a “witch hunt.”

However, the case still has at least one more hearing since the court didn’t rule on the payment of attorney’s fees with both sides believing they are owed additional money. That hearing is currently set for March 25.

But with a new attorney general now in charge, it’s possible that the case will not be pursued any further.

O’Neill claimed to ARLnow late last year that he had spoken with the newly elected AG Jason Miyares about the case, who allegedly told the towing company owner the case was “overbearing” and would not be sought.

O’Neill’s attorney Chap Petersen (a Virginia state senator, himself) told ARLnow in an email last week that he has no intention of conceding his attorney fees since he believes the case was over-charged by the AG.

But he doesn’t believe a new AG “changes the dynamics of our case, as Judge Newman had already ruled.”

ARLnow has reached out to AG Miyares’s office multiple times to see if there’s still intent to pursue the case, if an office representative will be at the March hearing, and to confirm O’Neill’s alleged conversation with Miyares, but have yet to hear back as of publication.

Lopez tells ARLnow he thought the trial was going to have a different outcome, but is holding out hope the current AG’s office continues the case.

“I hope Attorney General Miyares would care enough about addressing this issue and take an active role in empowering individuals to use the Virginia Consumer Protection Act,” he says.

Lopez expects his bill to be referred to committee soon and is hopeful it can get bipartisan support.

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