The Santa Monica City Attorney’s office recently completed its prosecution of Classic Towing and also filed criminal charges against another towing company, Competition Tow Service, and its owner, Peter Boktor, for illegal towing practices in Santa Monica.

Competition Towing is the third towing business prosecuted by the city in recent months, said Gary Rhoades, the attorney who handled the cases for Santa Monica.

The three prosecutions, along with new collaboration among law enforcement groups, are part of the city’s Consumer Protection Unit’s continuing efforts to curb illegal towing, officials say.

PROSECUTIONS — Classic Towing (also known as Hook It Up Towing) and its owners, Jesse and Blanca Lopez, entered into plea agreements with the City at the LAX Courthouse, Tuesday, January 30th.

Classic had been charged with attempted extortion, towing a vehicle without written authorization and operating without a business license.

The plea agreement includes the following terms:

– the business will be permanently shut down; and

– the owners will pay $5,000 — $2,500 for restitution of victims and $2,500 to the City’s Consumer Protection Fund.

The city had been pursuing Classic Towing and its owners for several years in multiple prosecutions and administrative actions, Rhoades said.

In a second case, Competition Tow Service has been charged with two towing infractions, including refusing to accept payment by credit card and charging an excessive rate, as well as one misdemeanor for taking a vehicle without the consent of the owner. The case is in pretrial proceedings.

In the third case, Williams Tow & Impound and its owner, William Amaya, pleaded no contest on December 13th to charges of towing vehicles without the written authorization of the property owner and refusing to accept credit card payments.

The terms of the agreement with Williams Tow include:

– not performing any towing in Santa Monica;

– a fine of $1,000;

– payment of $1,000 to the Consumer Protection Fund (the victims were reimbursed during the investigation);

– city attorney probation for one year; and

– giving notice to all employees regarding all towing laws.

Rhoades said that comprehensive probation packages are a good way to curb illegal practices.

“Probation terms that tightly control towing practices and include training of drivers and dispatchers should go a long way in improving Williams Tow’s compliance,” Rhoades said.

Comparing the results in the various cases, he added, “Seeking the closure of a towing outfit is our very last resort, but if an owner sees the hook on the back of his truck as a license to steal, then he will have to be shut down.”

LAW ENFORCEMENT COLLABORATION — The recent cases have been the result of heightened collaboration between law enforcement groups such as the Santa Monica Police Department, California Highway Patrol, Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, City of Santa Monica Revenue Division and Better Business Bureau, officials say.

Santa Monica police officer Mike Rosenberg first detected the patterns of unlawful towing practices.

“With Officer Rosenberg’s work, we saw that there were unusually high numbers of complaints and allegations against these three companies,” said Rhoades.

Once city prosecutors started filing charges, these law enforcement groups and Rosenberg made investigation of these patterns a priority, Rhoades said.

In the Classic Towing case, the city got an early court order barring Classic from doing any towing in Santa Monica, pending the jury trial.

In what officials describe as a first-of-its kind undercover test, consumer protection specialist Paula Rockenstein from the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office alleged that Classic was violating the court order and operating without a business license, Rhoades said.

New criminal counts based on the violations were then immediately filed.

NEW STATE LAWS — Under state law, the following practices are crimes:

n Towing a vehicle without written authorization from a property owner for that particular tow.

For example in the Williams Tow case, the prosecution alleged that the tow company towed a victim’s car from a video rental store parking lot before business hours even though the store had not authorized the tow. State law says the only exception to this rule occurs when the vehicle is blocking another vehicle or interfering with an exit or entrance.

n Towing a vehicle after its owner returns to the vehicle.

n Charging rates in excess of those approved by the California Highway Patrol.

n Failing to accept a credit card for payment of towing services.

n Towing a vehicle before a one-hour grace period expires.

Under stricter towing laws that went into effect on January 1st, most of the towing crimes that used to be infractions are now misdemeanors.

Also, the towing laws were amended so that they now regulate tows from private property such as condominium associations.

Rhoades said that any Santa Monica consumer who believes he or she is victim of illegal tows should contact the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office at (310) 458-8336.