Unauthorized Vehicles Will be Towed at Owners’ Expense

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Police officers, city and county attorneys, private citizens and others frequently inquire about the circumstances under which the owner of private property may arrange for a vehicle parked on that property to be towed by a private towing company. The first place people generally look for an answer is G.S. 20-219.2, which seems logical, given that the statute is captioned “Removal of unauthorized vehicles from private lots.” G.S. 20-219.2, which applies only in specified cities and counties, prohibits a person who does not own or lease a private parking space from parking in such a space without permission of the owner or lessee if the parking lot meets certain criteria. The lot must be clearly designated as private by a sign no smaller than 24 inches by 24 inches that is prominently displayed at the entrance and that lists the name and telephone number of the towing and storage company.  If the spaces are individually owned or leased, the parking lot must be clearly marked by signs setting forth the name of each individual lessee or owner.  A vehicle parked in a privately owned parking space in violation of this section may be removed from that space upon the written request of the parking space owner or lessee to a place of storage.  The registered owner of the vehicle is liable for removal and storage charges. G.S. 20-219.2(a1), (a2), and (a3) impose certain duties on a person who tows and stores a vehicle under this statute, including a requirement that the vehicle not be transported more than 25 miles for storage and that any person who tows or stores a vehicle under this statute inform the owner of his or her right to contest the lien for towing charges pursuant to G.S. 44A-4. Subsection (b) provides that “[a]ny person violating any of the provisions of this section shall be guilty of an infraction” punishable only by a fine of up to $100, rendering driver and tower alike subject to prosecution and punishment. Finally, G.S. 20-219.2(d) clarifies that the statute does not preempt the authority of cities and counties to enact ordinances regulating towing from private lots, as authorized by general law. See G.S. 153A-139 (permitting counties to adopt ordinances regulating parking in privately owned public vehicular areas upon the owner’s request and permitting a law enforcement officer to arrange for towing and safe storage); 160A-301(d) (permitting same for cities).

The limited scope of G.S. 20-219.2 is rather obvious.  Most private parking lots don’t have individually owned or leased spaces.  Those that do seldom contain signs setting forth the name of each individual lessee or owner.  Despite their failure to meet the requirements of G.S. 20-219.2, private parking lots (particularly the ones close to urban centers or college campuses) frequently contain signs warning that vehicles parked by persons who are not patronizing the private business or who do not lease or own a space will be towed at the vehicle owner’s expense.  I believe them, so I don’t park in such spots.  But may the private property owner have my car towed if I do? And if my car is towed, may the tower require me to pay a fee for towing and storage before returning it?

The answer to the first question is yes.  The answer to the second is unclear.

In Kirschbaum v. McLaurin Parking Co., 188 N.C. App. 782 (2008), the court of appeals explained that G.S. 20-219.2 “defines the State’s right to prosecute private citizens who trespass in private parking lots, but does not and cannot define the rights between two private citizens when one citizen trespasses upon the real property of the other.” Id. at 787. The plaintiff in Kirschbaum argued that the owner of a parking lot and its security agent trespassed against his property when they placed an immobilizing boot on his car, which the plaintiff parked on a weekday afternoon in a downtown Raleigh parking space leased by another.  The parking lot was marked by signs stating that the lot could be used for restaurant parking (plaintiff’s purpose) only on evenings and weekends, but each individually leased space was not marked. The plaintiff pointed to the provisions of G.S. 20-219.2 and G.S. 20-107, which prohibits tampering with a vehicle without the consent of the owner, as support for his claim that an owner’s absolute right to the exclusive use and enjoyment of his or her private property does not extend to private parking lots. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendants on this claim, and the court of appeals affirmed, explaining that while applying a boot to car amounted to interference with plaintiff’s property, the defendants “were privileged to attach the boot to protect their right to exclusive possession of [the parking lot].” Noting that “rightful possession cannot be vindicated by a bludgeon, but must be determined by a resort to legal proceedings,” id. at 788 (internal citations omitted), the court concluded that the defendants’ methods were reasonable as the security agent who applied the boot provided the plaintiff with a telephone number that he could have called to have the boot removed. The court further noted that the company provided an appeals process for people who contended they were improperly booted.

Thus, Kirschbaum holds that the owner of a private parking lot designated as such by signs may boot (and presumably tow) an impermissibly parked vehicle so long as the methods used are reasonable. The Kirschbaum court’s statement that G.S. 20-219.2 plays no role in determining whether the booting of the plaintiffs’ car was lawful implies that a parking lot owner can alleviate a tower of the duties in G.S. 20-219.2 by failing to adhere to the specific signage requirements of subsection (a) and thus removing the towing from the purview of the statute.

Because the plaintiff in Kirschbaum removed the boot from the wheel of his car himself, which damaged the wheel but saved him from paying the defendants to have it removed, Kirschbaum leaves unanswered the question of whether a towing company acting on behalf of a private property owner but outside the purview of G.S. 20-219.2 lawfully may require a vehicle owner to pay towing and storage fees before releasing the vehicle.

Persons who tow and store vehicles pursuant to G.S. 20-219.2 acquire a possessory lien for the reasonable charges of towing and storage, as do persons who tow and store vehicles pursuant to other statutory provisions.  See G.S. 20-219.10(b).  Thus, such persons may retain possession of the vehicle until the lien is paid, see G.S. 44A-3, and, if it is not paid, may sell the vehicle, see G.S. 44A-4.  It is unclear whether a person who tows a vehicle at a property owner’s behest but outside the purview of any general statute would be deemed to acquire such a possessory lien.  Perhaps in such cases the property owner is required to initially bear the cost of towing and storage, which it may then seek to recover from the vehicle’s owner in a civil action.

I’ve waxed on far too long already so I won’t address here other statutory procedures governing towing.  If you are interested in future posts exploring towing pursuant to other statutory procedures or the applicability of the post-towing procedures in Article 7A of Chapter 20 (which don’t apply to the sort of private party towing discussed in this post), let me know.

14 comments on “Unauthorized Vehicles Will be Towed at Owners’ Expense

  1. Hello,

    My car was towed from a public library parking lot. There were no warning signs indicating that cars would be towed. Actually, there were no signs at all except for those restricting certain spaces fo fuel efficient vehicles.

    The car was there for about 10 hours, and the library staff said their security guard decided my car was “abandoned” — this makes no sense because the library is open 9 to 9 on some weekdays, so even the staff parks there for 12 hours on occasion. Declaring my car as abandoned after 10 hours is inconsistent to say the least.

    I had to pay $250 to get my car back the next day (which included a “storage fee” for parking my car in a muddy junkyard area). Actually, it was the same day, because they towed the car about 1:30 am, and I picked it up that afternoon.

    Anyway, I believe I have a good case for asking the County to pay me back for the towing charges and for paying for any damage to my car caused by the towing company.

    If I understand the State Statute on this point, there is a requirement to post a warning sign in order to tow a vehicle. If parking is restricted, then signs are required also. Neither type of signs are posted at this public parking area.

    Any advice on this matter?

    Thanks,

  2. My car was parked in a reserved space at a district public school building. There are no signs posted warning of towing and no signs that the reserved spaces belong to any person or group. I am a district employee. The district purchased the building from a manufacturing company and the assumption was that those reserved spaces are left over from the previous owners. There are spaces reserved for the school board with signage that indicate when you cannot park there . This was not one of those spaces. Another district employe placed a very sticky sticker on my car which is proving difficult to remove. It was a bright orange “warning” sticker that told me the next time my car would be towed. Your thoughts on the legality of them tampering with my vehicle?

  3. My Truck was towed from a privately owned lot by Ace Towing in Raleigh, NC. A Minivan parked on the street blocked the sign indicating a private lot and it the sign was not in view upon entering the lot. I thought the parking lot was part of the restaurant I was visiting. When I called, they lady that answered said that somebody would be in the office at 9 pm so I could pick up my Truck. I arrived at 9:05pm and nobody was there. I called and the lady just hung up on me. Somebody finally showed up at 9:30 to let us in. When I got my truck I noticed that the doors were unlocked and the Alarm went off when i opened the door. Since it is impossible to arm the alarm with the doors unlocked, this means that the towing company broke into my truck. I confronted the tow truck drive and he told me that it is legal for them to break into my vehicle for “safe towing”. Is it legal for the towing company to break into a locked vehicle? this doesn’t seem right…

    • It is legal because they need to tie down the steering, take off the E brake and take it out of park

  4. Thank you for the thoughtful article. There is one major area left out of the discussion, however, which is by what authority the lot owners may then charge simply a ticket/fine for the double-parking (versus booting and/or towing, which are presumptively authorized by the case you cited).
    Any thoughts? Thanks much – TE

  5. I know this is an old post, but I have some serious questions about some of the conclusions made by the court of appeals. First off, albeit not really the focus of the appeal, I disagree with the majority’s opinion that there was probable cause to believe that the defendant committed misdemeanor larceny. The boot was in fact personal property belonging to another; however they willingly placed the boot on the plaintiff’s vehicle. In order to be charged with misdemeanor larceny there has to be a trespassory taking meaning that the item stolen has to come from the possession of another. There are other laws that may have applied such as conversion by bailee, but I certainly don’t think larceny applied in that situation. As noted in State v. Jones, 177 N.C. App. 269, 272 (2006), larceny is about violating the right to possession, not the right to ownership. Knowingly and willingly without coercion giving a would be thief possession of your property does not seem to meet the elements of larceny as interpreted by our courts.

    As to what basis does the court conclude that NC GS 20-219.2 does not apply? The court said, “Plaintiff’s reliance is misplaced. The first statute defines the State’s right to prosecute private citizens who trespass in private parking lots, but does not and cannot define the rights between two private citizens when one citizen trespasses upon the real property of the other.” First of all, the court is misplaced in concluding the legislative intent and purpose of enacting NC GS 20-219.2. The statute does authorize the prosecution of private citizens for trespass parking on private lots, but it ALSO authorizes the prosecution of predatory towing tactics. As a matter of fact, most of the revisions of this statute by the General Assembly were created in response to predatory towing and were designed to limit their authority in response to community complaints. In 2010, they passed Session Law 2010-134 which significantly revised NC GS 20-219.2 and that session law started out as Senate Bill 1136. An old post from a law firm that represents towing companies said this about this revision of the law, “the Transportation Oversight Committee heard a request to recommend a bill during the short session that would regulate towing from private lots. The request was the result of a vehicle owner in Huntersville that had their car towed over 40 miles away. Although there was already a law in place to regulate towing from private lots in certain counties and cities, North Carolina General Statute 20-219.2, many legislators wanted to modify this law to include more consumer protections. You will need to comply with this new law if you provide towing from Private Lots.” This is coming from an attorney that represents towing companies. This statute was necessary to protect our citizens from the practices of predatory towing, yet the court of appeals has decided to ignore codified law and simply state that the statute only criminalizes private citizens from parking on private lots without permission, despite ample evidence they are completely wrong on this interpretation. The plain meaning of the statute clearly makes it a violation of the law for towing companies in the applied jurisdictions to fail to comply with ANY provision of the law.

    The Court of Appeals essentially said in a rather perilous interpretation of our common law that private citizens can essentially interfere with the property rights of others in complete disregard to a codified statute that regulates the issue at hand in a fair way, as long as their property rights are later determined to be superior. In my opinion, a good comparison would be our state’s repossession law. Self-help repossession is authorized if done peacefully, but once a breach of the peace occurs, court action must take place. Private citizens are not very good at handling disputes and any civilized society has to have laws that resolve disputes in an orderly and fair way. The bottom line is that predatory towing is often a cavalier activity motivated solely by profit and the state is well within their right to regulate this business. NC GS 20-219.2 was designed to do just that for the applied jurisdictions that chose to be a part of it. The Court of Appeals opinion in regards to the purpose and meaning of the statute is erroneous and should be reversed by the State Supreme Court or the General Assembly should modified the statute to clear up the court’s misunderstanding of the plain meaning of the words. The Court of Appeals talks about the plaintiff not providing any relevant legal authority stating that a boot can’t be applied, but it should be the other way around. What legal authority does a private entity have to interfere with property by depriving the owner of its use and then levying a fine? NC GS 20-219.2 provides a suitable means to protect both the parking lot owner’s rights and the vehicle owner’s rights. Our General Assembly provided us with a fair process to handle these situations and the landowner decided to disregard it and instead created their own remedy. Then unbelievably the appellate court endorses this activity which to me defies common sense. Suppose I want to protect my parking lot by setting the cars on fire, hitting them with a baseball bat, or dumping a pale of snakes inside the car.

    What could possibly be more reasonably than towing a car only after reasonable notice has been provided through a sign of proper dimensions that can be seen by those that may not know otherwise that they are not authorized to park there? Quite frankly, the court of appeals got it wrong.

  6. On Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014, Ace Towing took a vehicle from my legal parking space in my townhome community. I called my homeowner’s association and they knew nothing about the towing. I called Ace Towing and they said they “received a phone call.” This has gotten out of hand.

    When is a towing company allowed to breach a citizen’s private property and steal their vehicle? I am only working between 10 – 20 hours a week, and do not have the funds for the fees that Ace Towing is leveling for this illegal seizure and impound of my vehicle.

    I know in North Carolina citizens have very few rights left, but what are my rights and what can I do to:

    1. Obtain my vehicle
    2. Prosecute Ace for theft of a citizen’s property stolen from the citizen’s private property

    Thank you.

  7. Do these laws apply to all of North Carolina? I am trying to set up a privately owned parking lot to be able to tow vehicles not authorized and cannot find information regarding Onslow County specifically only Jacksonville.

  8. I live in a TownHome community in Raleigh. I lease my unit from a property management company. Apparently the community was acquired by a new HOA management company. I came home to find my vehicle missing. I was told by a neighbor that they emailed notices to homeowners of the new parking policies. I did not receive a notice or anything in writing since I am not the homeowner. They contracted with Ace Towing to tow all vehicles. The person at the HOA management company told me she tagged the car on 06/29 and the notice that somehow disappeared from the windshield said that you had until 07/06 to move your vehicle. Of course this is what I am being told over the phone. I had photos taken of the car on 07/06 and there was nothing on the vehicle, I park next to it every day and the was no slip of paper that she claimed to tag the car with under the windshield wiper. I am now trying to get the car out of impound. If I pay will I be able to sue the owner or the management company for compensation for not notifying me of the change in policies. I don’t have money that I can just give away.

  9. We are in temporary housing in an apartment complex. We never received any rules about parking and never saw any posted signs.
    On the night of January 30,2016 I went into the ER and ended up being hospitalized with a surgery pending. My hubby went home very late, stressed and exhausted.When he arrived back to the apartment our van was gone. He called the police and they said they confirmed it had been towed. My hubby went to go pick it up. They said it was over the line. It was more than likely, the snow was not all cleared the day before so my hubby had to park on an angle.
    I called the complex the next day. Who gave permission for them to tow our van ? Their response, well there is a sign on the side of the building and the town company just comes and tows, we dont notify any one. WOW !!! That cost us over 125 dollars for us not to mention a HUGE amount of stress , on top of stress.
    My question is , was this legal without notifying us and not posting this at entrances and did they have to notify us first ? The van was about 29 miles away, when we picked it up. They said that it isnt their fault that the temp housing didnt notify us. I am just wondering is what and how it was done legal ?

  10. If a person has been given 90 days but told by his attorney (court Appointed) he will serve it out in cobb county, 2 for 1. next he received a letter stating the state was making arrangements to transfer him to a prison for the 90 days. and he has been in four 24 days. Can the court change it after signing the agreement to do jail in county?

  11. We have an unauthorized vehicle that parks in our parking lot in the back of our house.
    The person doesn’t read the sign that says no parking all violators will be towed at the expense of addressee (my address)
    I’m having it towed.

  12. A tow company placed a boot on my car while I was in it. I was in the car having a conversation with someone who lived there when they told me to move. I didn’t move quick enough so they placed a boot on my car, while I was In it and while it was on the entire time. Is that legal?

  13. my question is that is does the towing laws cover all of nc or just certain countys and how to we find laws for our county. I live in rockingham county.

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