Attorney Radji Tolentino with the DCCA Office of Consumer Protection joins producer/host Coralie Chun Matayoshi to discuss when your car can get towed, abandoned vehicles, how much tow companies can charge, how to protect against predatory towing, and how to file a complaint against a tow company.
Your car can be towed under four scenarios: 1) your car is parked on private property without the property owner’s authorization, 2) you parked illegally on public property, 3) your car was involved in an accident and can’t move under its own power or is otherwise disabled and is a traffic hazard, and 4) you requested a private tow. The first three scenarios involve tows that are regulated by state law and are the most stressful to drivers.
Q. One question drivers ask when they realize their car has been towed is “How was I supposed to know I could not park there?
Cars Parked on Private Property without authorization– Examples of a private property include a parking lot at a strip mall or at a townhouse complex.
Before a car can be towed from private property a notice must be not less than two-inches high, have light reflective letters on a contrasting background that it is clearly visible to any driver approaching any individually marked or unmarked parking space or at the entrance of a parking lot that consists of restricted parking spaces. The notice must clearly state that: a vehicle parked without authorization is prohibited will be towed and held at the vehicle owner’s expense; and the name, address, and phone number of the facility where the vehicle will be towed and stored.
Q. Who is authorized to tow my vehicle from private property?
The law allows the owner, occupant, or person in charge of the property to have a vehicle towed from their property.
Q. What does it mean that my car was parked without authorization?
A car is parked without authorization if it is not parked in compliance with the signs posted on the property. For example, if the sign requires that a parking fee must be paid before parking and you do not pay the fee, then your car is parked without authorization.
Q. I prepaid the parking fee at a kiosk and placed their proof of payment in a different location on the windshield than the one required by the parking location. The notice required that the receipt be visible on the driver side of my car’s dashboard, but I placed it on the passenger side. Have I parked without authorization?
No. The Legislature removed this restriction in 2020 by allowing the receipt, placard, or permit to be placed in any visible location.
Q. What about cars parked on public property – what is illegal?
Illegal parking can include overstaying time limits, parking in a restricted zone without permission, parking in a way that blocks traffic, or failing to park safely and appropriately.
Vehicles parked on streets or on public property in a “no parking” or “loading zone,” as indicated by signage and curb color, may be towed at the request of the police. The towed vehicle may also be ticketed. A vehicle parked in a metered stall may be ticketed by the police and towed if the meter has run out.
A vehicle parked in an unmetered stall may be ticketed by the police and towed if the vehicle is in the stall past the time permitted on the sign.
Q. What if someone leaves a vehicle on the street near your home for a long time. Can you have it towed?
Under state law, absent any county definition of “abandoned”, a vehicle is deemed abandoned if it unlawfully parked on a public highway or if it is left unattended on public or private property, for more than a day or 24 hours. The police or the property owner will place an abandoned car notice on the vehicle, and if it remains unmoved for more than one day, it can be towed.
If you see an abandoned car on your private property or in a public property for more than a day, look for the owner before reporting it abandoned- it could be your neighbor or local business owner who parked it there temporarily.
Q. What if you come back to where you parked your car and it’s already hooked up to the tow truck, but they haven’t started towing yet. Can you ask the tow company to unhook your car? Do you have to pay the driver to unhook your car?
If your vehicle is in the process of being hooked up or is hooked up to a tow truck and you appear on the scene, the towing company is required to unhook the vehicle and not charge you any fees. For example, if your vehicle is hooked up and the tow truck’s engine is running but the truck is waiting to enter traffic to begin transporting the vehicle to the storage location, your appearance will be considered “on the scene,” and your vehicle should be unhooked at no charge.
The Legislature in 2020 amended the towing statutes to address some ambiguities in the law. Heated exchanges between vehicle operators and tow companies were not unusual when the tow company refused to drop the vehicle, even when it was moved only a few feet from the parking space. In these instances, tow companies had claimed that the vehicle is no longer at the “scene,” and therefore, the vehicle was no longer eligible to be dropped. By establishing an objective standard as to what constitutes the “scene,” this enhanced certainty reduced unnecessary conflicts. A vehicle is “hooked up” when it is completely and securely attached and fastened to the tow truck by means of clamps, couplings, straps, tow bars, and other mechanical devices. The “Scene” means the location of the vehicle while it is in the process of being hooked up, or the location where it was hooked up, and anywhere within a fifty-foot radius of that location.
Q. Is it true that only the registered owner can retrieve a towed vehicle from the tow yard?
That is not true. Retrieving a vehicle from a tow company is often the most stressful part of a tow because of pointless barriers that some tow companies may place on consumers who wish to recover a towed vehicle. The most problematic example occurs when the tow company allows only the legally registered vehicle owner to recover the vehicle. This restriction could prevent a child from recovering a parent’s car that he or she has borrowed, as well as a lessee from recovering a car rental’s vehicle. Fortunately, the Legislature addressed this problem in 2020 by adding a new definition of “vehicle owner” to prevent these sorts of problems from occurring. The definition of “vehicle owner” was changed in 2020 to include anyone having permission of the registered owner to operate the vehicle, including car rental lessees or family members possessing the vehicle key or remote keyless ignition system. So, the law now allows authorized operators of towed vehicles to retrieve those vehicles from a tow yard or to instruct a tow truck operator to drop the vehicle at the scene.
Q. How much are tow companies allowed to charge?
Hawaii Revised Statute §290-11(b)(1) – State law limits how much tow companies can charge: $65 per tow, $7.50 per mile, $75 for a dolly, $25 for each of the first seven days a car is in the lot and $20 for each day thereafter. Tow companies may also charge a single $15.00 overtime fee for tows that take place between 6:00PM & 6:00AM Mon – Fri and between 6:00PM Friday to 6:00AM Monday. Tow companies may also charge $30.00 for a difficult hookup which is a hookup above or below ground in a multilevel facility. Also, per §291C-165.5(b) consumers cannot be required to pay more than the charges as provided by section 290-11(b) or the rates agreed upon with the respective counties, whichever is lower, except that tow operators may charge additional reasonable amounts for excavating vehicles from off-road locations. If you were charged any fees that are not authorized by law before you can retrieve your vehicle, you can file a complaint with the Office of Consumer Protection.
Q. Can I use a credit card to pay for the towing charges when retrieving my vehicle from the tow company?
The law requires tow companies to accept credit cards, cash, and debit cards. The law requiring towing companies to accept credit cards was enacted in 2020. Having these payment options makes it easier for consumers to recover their vehicles in a timely fashion. If you were told you had to pay in cash to retrieve your vehicle on any date after October 1, 2020, you can file a complaint with the Office of Consumer Protection.
Q. Since January 2023, the tow company contracted by the City and County of Honolulu has charged at least 120 people a special fee. Several insurance companies have complained about this and have refused to pay the claim for towing. So how is this tow company being allowed to charge upwards of $900 per tow?
The Office of Consumer Protection is looking into this matter, and we have reviewed the City’s contract with the towing company. The City’s contract does not authorize the towing company to charge consumers more than what is allowed under state law. While the City can agree to pay the tow company other non-statutory charges in their contract, they cannot pass those charges on to consumers. There is no state law or county ordinance that allows the tow company to charge consumers the $900 “non-statutory difficult hook up” recovery fee for work after the initial fifteen minutes. Therefore, if a consumer was charged that fee, they should file a complaint with the Office of Consumer Protection.
Q. What if my car broke down or if I got into a car accident and my car needs to be towed. Can I choose which tow company to call, or do I need to use the tow company that is under contract with the city?
When your car is involved in an accident and cannot move under its own power or if its disabled and blocking the road or is a traffic hazard, you can call the tow company of your choice and the capped towing and storage rates in 290-11(b) apply, even if the police did not order the tow.
Q. In 2020, didn’t the legislature pass new laws to protect the public against unscrupulous towing companies that just show up unsolicited at the scene of an accident?
Yes. Most people are shaken and not able to think clearly after they have been in an accident, so they are vulnerable to exploitation. Prior to 2020, charges and fees for tows authorized by county police for the removal of motor vehicles for traffic violations were specified by law, while charges and fees for disabled motor vehicles due to an accident were not. One of the issues the Legislature addressed in 2020 was that unscrupulous tow companies would show up at the accident scene and misrepresent they were sent by police dispatch and then deliberately overcharge consumers or the owner’s insurance company to pay an exorbitant amount in order the retrieve the vehicle. In 2020, the Legislature amended the towing statute so that if a motor vehicle is involved in an accident and cannot move on its own power or is disabled and constitutes an obstruction or a traffic hazard, and the tow was not requested by the police, the tow charges are capped as set forth in 290-11(b).
Q. Are there signage and insurance requirements for all tow operators?
§291C-135 Tow trucks; signage and insurance requirements. Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, the registered owner or lessee of a tow truck shall:
(1) Permanently affix on each door of the truck a sign with the name and telephone number of the tow business. The letters and numbers used in the sign shall be no less than two inches in height; and
(2) Maintain insurance in the following amounts:
- Bodily injury of not less than $500,000;
- Property damage of not less than $200,000’ and
- On-hook coverage of not less than $175,000; or
- A combined single limit of liability of not less than $1,000,000
The insurance requirement is to protect owners of towed vehicles in the event of vehicle loss or damage due to towing or bodily injury in the course of towing. If a tow operator fails to comply with the insurance requirements of this section, no charges, including storage charges, may be collected by the tow operator as a result of the tow or as a condition of the release of the towed vehicle. Any person, including the registered owner, lien holder, or insurer of the vehicle, who has been injured by the tow operator’s failure to comply with this section is entitled to sue for damages sustained. If a judgment is obtained by the plaintiff, the court shall award the plaintiff a sum of not less than $1,000 or threefold damages sustained by the plaintiff, whichever sum is greater, and reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. This section shall not apply to a county that has adopted ordinances regulating towing operations.
Q. What can consumers do to protect themselves against predatory towing?
The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) has some tips on how to avoid towing fraud:
- After an accident take photos of the scene, vehicle damage and license plates of all vehicles involved in the accident, drivers, passengers and witnesses to the accident, and any related documentation such as driver’s licenses and insurance cards.
- Don’t use tow trucks that arrive at the scene unsolicited (i.e. the police did not call them).
- Don’t provide any contact information or insurance information to unsolicited towers.
- Check to make sure that the company information on the towing release matches the information on the tow truck (e.g., company name, phone number)
- If the tow truck does not have any identifying information on it, ask for a company I.D. from the driver.
- If something looks fishy and you think the tow operator may not be legitimate, notify the police.
- Do not allow a tow operator to tow the vehicle without being provided with a printed price list that details daily storage fees and any other miscellaneous charges.
- Be sure to get information about where your vehicle is being towed
Q. Are there any other requirements that tow companies need to abide by?
In the City and County of Honolulu, tow companies shall remain available 24 hours a day, every day of the week to release vehicles kept in storage to an insurer, vehicle owner, or a designated representative. These requirements allow vehicle owners to retrieve their towed vehicles in a timely manner.
Q. What if a county does not contract with a towing company?
Hawaii and Maui Counties do not have contracts for towing services. Towing companies in counties without contract are called on a rotation and by region.
Q. How does a consumer file a complaint with the Office of Consumer Protection?
Filing a complaint online is the easiest way to file a complaint with OCP at https://web2.dcca.hawaii.gov/ocpcomplaint/. Consumers can also call the Consumer Resource Center at (808) 587-4272 to speak with an intake specialist. We recommend consumers to provide as much information as possible such as including a copy of their towing receipt that includes an itemized list of towing charges.
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Disclaimer: this material is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. The law varies by jurisdiction and is constantly changing. For legal advice, you should consult a lawyer that can apply the appropriate law to the facts in your case.