Houston Tow Truck Drivers Are Totally Above the Law
We learned this by following up on an e-mail from a guy who says he watched a driver for Fast Tow jimmy the locks on an SUV in order to get inside and secure the vehicle for towing. (The truck was parked on a portion of the road that, at that time of night, was a no-parking zone). It made us wonder: Is this legal? Should be a fairly simple thing to find out, no? Boy, were we wrong.
Motor carriers in Texas are regulated by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation; last December, the department's general counsel e-mailed the industry members on its listserve to say the following: "Tow operators are not authorized to make entry into a motor vehicle for purposes of towing the vehicle under the non-consent tow provisions of Occupations Code 2308. Use of a 'slim jim' or other device is not authorized under the towing statute or rules."
If no one enforces, no one's getting in trouble
But in Houston, Fast Tow owner Jeanette Rash trains her 27 drivers to straighten a vehicle's steering mechanism before they tow it, and she points to a federal statute she says gives her drivers carte blanche to get into your car by any means necessary.
Specifically, Rash cites a paragraph in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's towing regulations that states: "Unless the steering mechanism is adequately locked in a straight forward position, all motor vehicles towed by means of a saddle-mount shall be towed with the front end mounted on the towing vehicle." (The Administration operates under the U.S. Department of Transportation).
"In order for you to do that [lock the steering mechanism], you've got to open the vehicle to make sure that the steering wheel is locked and in place," Rash said.
And that's what gives Fast Tow the right to get into your locked vehicle for towing purposes in Houston. (Rash also told us that federal statutes allow her tow truck drivers to get into your locked car to secure any valuable property. She did not cite any city or county towing ordinances.)
But a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration spokesman told Hair Balls that the statute she was citing only applied to federally regulated motor carriers and had nothing to do with the kind of towing at issue.
"That doesn't give you license to break into the car," he told us. "In an emergency, I could see that, but you know...for somebody's expired meter, that doesn't give you license to break into a car."
When we mentioned this to Rash, she told us that the person we spoke with must not understand the law.