The night of May 6, 2020, Greenville, South Carolina Municipal Judge Mike O’Brien had to leave his family in cool and rainy weather for an hour and a half while he took out $185 in cash and tracked down his van that held two car seats for his young grandchildren.
O’Brien, a long-time visitor to North Myrtle Beach who had just bought a condo in Cherry Grove, had taken his family to Snooky’s for his son-in-law’s birthday. At the time, restaurants had just started to open following the governor’s COVID-19 closures.
Across the street, the Atlantis Pancake House was still closed. O’Brien, who was familiar with the city’s towing laws, figured he would be safe parking there. North Myrtle Beach’s towing ordinance, as both he and the city interpret it, require the property owner or agent of record to sign off with an “original signature” on any “non-consensual” tow, which occurs when a wrecker tows a vehicle parked on private property without the vehicle owner’s permission.
The city’s ordinance also prohibits those private property tows unless clear signage that’s at least 4 square feet is posted at the entrance. At the time, O’Brien said, the sign was not posted at the entrance, and it was not large enough to meet the city’s requirements.
The judge, driving his wife’s four-seat Toyota, parked in a handicap spot while his son-in-law parked the van in the Atlantis lot.
The six of them left the restaurant as it was closing down, and the van with the car seats was gone.
“I thought it had been stolen,” O’Brien said. “Had no reason to think it had been towed. And I called the [North] Myrtle Beach police department. They had no information. I thought ‘certainly not,’ but I went ahead and called [Coastline Towing] and sure enough they had towed it.”
O’Brien said he had to get $185 in cash, because the tow company wouldn’t take a card after hours. The judge said he believes it was an illegal tow, even though the company wasn’t charged.
“The ordinance says you have to have it properly marked, that the owner or his designee has to call it in, which certainly didn’t happen because they’re not even there,” O’Brien said. “The tow truck driver told me someone called it in to them. And then he shows me this piece of paper with a pre-signed whatever. It was the owner’s signature but he wasn’t there to sign off, so they didn’t follow the rules on that.”
For more than an hour, O’Brien’s family and two young grandkids had to sit under a thin eve that barely protected them from the rain while he got cash and paid to get his van back. His wife and daughter were “livid,” he said.
Driving his kids back to the condo in the Toyota would have been illegal, because the car seats were in the van that had been towed.
“It would have taken 15 minutes to get up there, but again, I have to put them in the car,” O’Brien said. “God forbid I have a wreck and hurt my grandkids, and then of course I’m legally liable because I broke the law if I did that. That doesn’t really work for a judge. I’m supposed to be enforcing the law.”
O’Brien is just one of dozens – if not hundreds – of people who have complained to the city about predatory towing.
Those complaints are driving the city to revamp its towing ordinance to get the public safety department involved before a tow occurs and ensure a representative of the property signs off of any tows that happen on the property. Public Safety Director Jay Fernandez said the police’s response time is generally between three and five minutes, although some property owners have questioned if officers will be able to respond to tows in a timely manner.
The new ordinance is “going to solve the predatory part of the towing,” said James Gause, who owns Gause’s Towing and Recovery. “No tow company has the right to go and steal someone’s vehicle and not report it properly. That’s stealing. So when the police come, it takes the pressure off of the towing company as far as damage to the property and all those issues.”
A public records request showed that as of August 26, the city had case numbers for 368 non-consensual tows, with 317 of them performed by Coastline Towing. But the city only had a record for 142 required authorization forms, and not all of them were completely filled out. (During first reading, Fernandez said the city only had a record of 60 tows, and his claim was repeated by other officials. He later clarified that he was referring to one particular property, not the entire city.)
The city knows about a tow because wreckers have to call in each tow they make. But the city also requires that they follow up with an authorization form with the signature of the property owner or agent of record. In a lot of cases, the city doesn’t get the required form.
“We used to try to fax them, and North Myrtle Beach was having a problem with their fax system,” said Richard Pate, who owns Coastline Towing and Affordable Towing, and who does the majority of non-consensual tows in the city. “They said that they updated their phone system. I’m not sure what the problem was. Everyone we do, we fill out a form.”
While the city says the ordinance’s “original signature” language already mandates the presence of the owner or agent of record for the property where a tow occurs, Pate and the properties he works with haven’t interpreted the ordinance that way.
The new proposal explicitly mandates the presence of the property owner or agent of record beyond any uncertainty about the meaning, by requiring an original “wet ink” signature, and forces the property owner to call police first so an officer is on scene to verify the tow is legal. A property owner can designate any number of people to be agents of record who can sign off on a tow.
The new language has Pate and some property owners fighting back.
“This is going to be a nightmare,” said Joe Gosiewski, who sits on the Barefoot Resort Residential Owners Association’s Joint Committee.
The community’s property management company, which could handle the agent of record responsibilities, doesn’t work on the weekends, Gosiewski said.
“On 2 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, this is not going to be a priority,” he added. “So when a board member is on his way or her way to the beach, and they call police, they’re not going to hang around to sign a form. It’s just not going to happen. This is going open up our entire Barefoot community for commercial vehicles being parked illegally, for unauthorized vehicles, for people to park in cul-de-sacs; it’s just going to be a nightmare. We have no control anymore once this goes.”
Pate said the problem with the city’s proposal was that it put the burden on property owners to comply with the city’s new ordinance instead of putting the burden on drivers to park legally in areas where they won’t be towed.
“They’re crossing over into civil liberties,” Pate said. “If you own property and you want to do business and do something on your property, you should be able to do it. The city’s saying ‘you can’t do that.’”
To placate private property owners worried about having to post required signage in their residential front yards, the city plans to exempt the sign requirements for properties that don’t contract with a tow company, but those owners would still have to call police before they could tow a car that’s parked illegally on their property.
Councilor J.O. Baldwin also expressed concerns about the new language and the burden it could place on owners in small condo complexes where there’s no property managers on duty, and owners aren’t home.
“The reason that the property owners have hired a company is so they don’t have to have somebody monitoring that parking lot every day, so they hire a towing company to do that for them,” Baldwin said. “Could you have the towing company call?”
So far, the city is reticent to go that route because the public safety department isn’t keen on deciding whether a tow is legitimate or not without the owner being there.
“We received a complaint this morning of a vehicle being towed,” said Fernandez. “The person, to my knowledge, had a valid parking sticker. But it wasn’t being suspended by his rearview mirror. Either it fell or they actually knocked it off; it was laying on the floor. But they used that as an excuse to tow the vehicle. We received that complaint. That’s why we need make sure that… we don’t get too involved in making decisions of valid tow or not a valid tow.”
In an interview, councilor Bob Cavanaugh said he was still on the fence about the proposed ordinance, expressing concern about the ability of police show up within three to five minutes of every tow being called in, and the difficulty smaller condo complexes might face in towing cars when property owners aren't around.
“I’m still looking for more details and more discussion,” he said. “I’m not against it. I’m still looking for more details.”
The city administration believes that it already prohibits tows without the property owner present. Before the workshop, the public safety department met with all the towing companies to discuss the ordinance and the meaning of “original signature” on required the authorization forms.
“One tow company’s attorney was questioned, ‘is a photocopy copy considered an original?’” Fernandez said. “He flatly said ‘No.’ I think what you see from some of these condo people, that are saying ‘Hey, we can’t be here to do it,’ but they’re still having tows. That tow company – whoever’s representing that firm – is getting stacks of forms signed. And then they fill in the data as they get there. I don’t think that’s the intent of the existing ordinance.”
Pate, who said he was involved in setting up the city’s original towing ordinance, has a different interpretation.
“The reason why it was set up that way is because so many people don’t live here full-time,” Pate said. “They own houses and they come down and use them for vacation or they rent them, and they just wanted to make sure that they could hire somebody – a towing company – that if somebody was in their property, it could be towed and they wouldn’t have to be on scene.”
Although the city thinks the ordinance as written prohibits tows without the property owner’s presence, it wants to get rid of any ambiguity in case it has to take a wrecker company to court for breaking the rules.
“Apparently, the ordinance is not worded well enough to tie down somebody to an illegal act,” said O’Brien, the Greenville judge. “I have a different opinion of the way the law’s written because of my position. My opinion is if the law’s written that way, charge them and let the jury decide. That’s the way our system works.”
Spokesperson Pat Dowling said the city would have a better chance in court if it overhauled the ordinance, “and it may come down to that, so we want to prepare for it.”
But not every tow company follows Pate’s interpretation of the current rules.
“The ordinance has always been that a representative from the property be present,” said Gause. “The problem is what they’re doing is they’re not having anyone show up from the property. They already have signed sheets, which is illegal. If it was being done properly from the beginning, the property owner would still have to be there. So there’s no change. What they’re doing now is forcing the person to be there because the police are going to be there.”
O’Brien said ending predatory towing is a good thing for the city, because it helps ensure the tourists that the city relies on will keep coming back.
“I would have spent that $185 somewhere else in town. The businesses are hurting in town,” O’Brien said. “I love this town and I’d love this town to succeed, and it’s not going to succeed when you have people coming in and doing predatory towing.”
Although some property owners are opposed to the change, Gause wants to see it happen.
“When the police are there, it makes our job easier, and I don’t understand the fight that they’re making our job easier,” said Gause. “Unless you’re doing something wrong and you want to hide it. And that’s the issue.”
Second reading for the towing ordinance is on the agenda for Monday's council meeting, which starts at 7 p.m.
"Just about every towing company we have besides the one guy, they were all in agreement with it," said Mayor Marilyn Hatley. "I think our staff worked very hard. We had a workshop with the towing companies and the police department sat down and talked with them and they were able to come to compromises and accept each other’s ideas. I think we’ve worked very hard to come up with a towing ordinance that will work."