Tow truck drivers in Houston can break into your car in order to tow it -- against state regulations -- and here's why: Law enforcement ain't gonna stop 'em.
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."
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. "They need to talk to DPS, who enforces motor carrier rules and regulations in Texas," Rash said. "Because we have to secure the vehicle to safely tow it. Now how do you do that if you don't unlock the vehicle..."
She assured us that "I kind of do know what I'm talking about -- I'm on the Tow Truck Advisory Board in Austin." (Although Rash knows what she's talking about, Fast Tow was investigated by TDLR last January after its drivers illegally towed cars from a Houston parking lot, according to a KHOU report. The company refunded the fees to drivers whose cars were towed.)
So we asked DPS. Spokesman Tom Vinger told us that "the particular regulation is only a requirement for federally regulated commercial vehicles and does not grant authority for any other actions."
He also provided a general DPS statement explaining that "DPS does not regulate tow trucks. You should contact local authorities."
A Houston Police Department spokesman referred us to the Harris County District Attorney's Office. A spokeswoman there explained in an e-mail that "our office does not disburse advisory opinions."
(The guy who brought this to our attention in the first place claimed that "I have checked with Houston P.D. to see if this is allowable behavior and they confirmed that any forced entry into a vehicle is criminal.")
However, the president of the Towing & Recovery Association of America agreed with Rash's interpretation of the federal statute, even though he hadn't heard of it before.
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SHOW ME HOW
Ultimately, Rash told us, it boils down to common sense. If the federal regulations state that a steering mechanism has to be adequately secured in order to be towed on a saddle-mount, then, duh, yeah, you have to "unlock" the vehicle.
"You're looking for statute specifically that allows us to unlock a vehicle, and there is no such thing, so you might as well not look for that," Rash told us.
So it's basically what a federal statute that doesn't apply to her company doesn't say that gives her drivers the right to jimmy the locks on your car in order to tow it. Just so you know.