If you parked in the wrong spot (or even if you parked in the correct one) and your car was towed, someone in addition to the wrecker driver and the storage lot may have made money from your misfortune. A man who may have been wrongfully towed from the Velvet Taco parking lot and his friend claim that parking lots in the area are being watched by "spotters" — people paid by wrecker drivers to alert them to potential tow candidates. While a parking lot owner may not receive money or anything else of value from wrecker drivers, the law doesn't seem to apply to third parties.
Allen Pasternak says that on November 3, he parked his sedan in the Velvet Taco lot at 4819 Washington near Shepherd. He went inside with his friend Brad (who doesn't want his last name used) to get something quick to eat.
Next door to Velvet Taco is a Jack In The Box franchisee. The parking lots for the two businesses are partially divided by a dumpster and a few short yellow poles, but in the back there’s only a theoretical division where the asphalt for the two parking lots meets. There's a vague remnant of a yellow line painted between the lots that has long since faded.
The Jack In The Box lot is marked in multiple places with “Parking for Jack In The Box Customers Only” signs. However, Pasternak said, “I avoided those. There are no ‘no parking’ signs in the area where I parked. In fact, I pulled in where a truck had just pulled out. We weren’t in the restaurant for longer than 15 minutes. When we came out, the car was gone.” (We met Pasternak's passenger at the parking lot and verified there are no signs where he says Pasternak parked.)
Pasternak claims that only the two tires on the passenger side of his car were over that theoretical line where the two parking lots meet. Nonetheless, his car was towed by Michael Gaidusek of GTA Wrecker.
We called Gaidusek to find out why he’d tow a car that was substantially parked where he wasn't authorized to tow, and he wasn’t interested in discussing the matter. “We take pictures for everything and this conversation is over,” he declared. “If he [Pasternak] has a problem with the tow, he can request a tow hearing like everyone else.” Then he hung up on us.
Unfortunately, Pasternak didn’t request a hearing in time. That has to be done within 14 days of the removal of the vehicle.
If he had, though, he might have been able to plead his case successfully. The person who authorized the tow is listed as Fred Linqui, a former Jack In The Box supervisor who told us he hasn’t worked there for more than two years. Apparently, GTA Wrecker's tow authorization was never updated with a valid Jack In The Box employee name.
The human resources director for the Jack In The Box franchisee, JIB Management, says that business didn't realize GTA Wrecker was towing cars from the lot, had no idea the wrecker driver had posted signs on the poles, and didn't want him to continue to tow from there. The director, who only gave her name as Stacy, said JIB Management was sending someone on site immediately to take a look at the GTA Wrecker signs and would most likely remove them. We asked Stacy to call us back with their decision and will update this article if that indeed happens. UPDATED 11/25/15, 9:11 a.m.: True to her word, the GTA Wrecker signs have been removed.)
We went out to the parking lot ourselves on a Friday night between 7 and 9 p.m. to see if cars were being towed and under what circumstances. No cars were towed during our stay, although at least five people parked in the Jack In The Box lot and walked over to Velvet Taco. In those cases, the Jack In The Box owner would have been well in his rights to have their cars towed. There was no ambiguity about which lot their cars were in.
We did see something unusual, though. A man in a sedan was parked in the very back row of the Jack In The Box parking lot. He never got out of his car. He just sat there for about 15 minutes. He drove away and about ten minutes later, another man in a different car also parked in the back of the lot. He stayed there for about 20 minutes and then also drove away. Neither man went inside the Jack In The Box.
Could they have been there to alert tow trucks about people who are inappropriately parked? It seems possible. Brad believes there are spotters, and not just people parked in cars. He says that after Pasternak's car was towed, he observed a man sitting on the curb across the street watching the lot. Brad says when he approached to ask the man about the tow, the man ran into a house across the street that is owned by Catholic charity Casa Juan Diego. Brad says he also asked a driver towing away a different car how much spotters get paid. The driver replied, "None of your business."
Velvet Taco director of operations, Brian Watkins, says he's also heard about individuals being paid as spotters to watch the Jack In The Box parking lot. "I'm dealing with the owner of the Jack In The Box and have met him personally. He's a really nice guy. What has happened in the past in that particular parking lot — due to the limited parking all along Washington — apparently in the past there were multiple cars parking in that lot and being left all weekend," he explained. "But we've also noticed that it appears there is some kind of homeless shelter right behind [Velvet Taco] and they're actually scoping out that lot. As soon as someone parks in that lot and walks into Velvet Taco, they're actually calling the tow company. I can't prove that and am not trying to accuse anybody of anything."
A woman who answered the phone at Casa Juan Diego who refused to be identified staunchly denies that anyone from there is a spotter. It is, however, interesting that Watkins has heard about the same spotter system that Pasternak's passenger believes to be true.
Velvet Taco stays extremely busy and it’s difficult to find a parking spot there. Watkins is well aware of that fact and is trying to alleviate the situation. The company has rented the parking spaces at nearby Monarch Launderers & Dry Cleaning, and they are available after 6 p.m. on weekdays, after 3 p.m. on Saturdays and all day on Sunday. He says he's also in talks to lease more parking spaces from W Grill next door, as well as with the Jack In The Box franchisee, Atour Eyvazian. Watkins emphasizes that Eyvazian is "a super-nice guy" and the negotiations have been extremely amicable.
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Regardless, Velvet Taco's patrons (and those of other busy restaurants and bars in Houston, for that matter) need to be very careful about where they park. Pasternak had to pay $225.80 to get his car back. Watkins says the restaurant has talked to valets, but can't justify patrons paying $5 or $10 to valet just to go inside and spend $10 or $15 on food.
The only available remedy for people who think their car has been illegally towed is to request a hearing within 14 days. Instructions on how to do that are online at the Harris County Justice of the Peace Courts website. There’s a $36 fee to file, and the person entitled to a hearing must go in person to the Harris County Criminal Justice Center at 1201 Franklin. The requirements to pay a fee, appear in person during normal business hours and take time off work to do so may be discouraging, but unless people take action, sketchy tow practices will continue.
A towing company or parking lot owner found in violation of the law is liable for damages arising from the removal or storage of the vehicle, towing and storage fees and $1,000 plus three times the amount of fees for towing and storage if the violation was intentional, knowing or reckless.