A handful of towing companies are continuing to push back against the Mobile Police Department (MPD) after being suspended an additional 30 days from the rotating list of wrecker services called out to accidents.
As Lagniappe has reported, five local companies have been the subject of dueling criminal and administrative inquiries launched by MPD after it was discovered some companies were allegedly overcharging motorists involved in accidents responded to by local police responded.
Specifically, MPD has publicly accused these companies of charging fees prohibited under provisions of the city ordinance governing what towing companies can charge when working with MPD. Last month, officers raided multiple locations owned by SOS Towing, Southport Towing, Casher’s Towing, A Plus Towing and Heroes Towing.
None have been charged with any crime, but all five were immediately suspended from MPD’s rotation list for 30 days. A second 30-day suspension was tacked on after MPD claimed it found additional evidence of more overcharges in the past.
The accused companies have maintained their charges are in line with industry standards and communications they received from MPD in the past. It’s also worth noting MPD also recently conceded its impound lot had been violating portions of the city’s decades-old ordinance.
Chief Lawrence Battiste himself has said it can be “confusing.”
After the additional 30-day suspension, the companies made an appeal to the Mobile City Council for the second time. Tuesday, some councilors started raising their own concerns about MPD’s investigations.
Specifically, Councilors Fred Richardson and John Williams each raised questions about the companies being repeatedly penalized for conduct that occurred in the past. They were also the only two council members who voted in the towing companies’ favor when considering their appeal this week.
“I don’t think it was intended for you to hold something over their heads, suspend them for 30 days and then say, ‘Oh! Look over here, we missed this. That’s another 30 days,’” Richardson said. “You got the same papers. You can’t keep going through that pile of papers and suspending them. That’s punitive.”
Battiste has maintained the new allegations stemmed from complaints citizens reported independently.
The council went on to hear appeals from three of the suspended companies including SOS Towing, which was represented by attorney Harry Satterwhite. Addressing the council, Satterwhite said the towing investigation has been “heavy-handed” and is running at least one of the companies out of business.
“Imagine if I told you I was going to take away 8 percent of the income you make in a year,” Satterwhite said. “Now imagine 30 days later I said, ‘I’m going to do that again.’”
Satterwhite also repeated a position the towing companies’ supporters have taken in recent weeks, which is the section of Mobile’s ordinance governing towing practices is precluded by federal statutes that prevent state and local governments from regulating the “price, route or service” of motor carriers.
While some of the councilors expressed sympathy for the towing companies’ position, MPD attorney Wanda Rahman didn’t appear as moved. She said the appeal should be focused on whether the ordinance was violated and whether Battiste abused his discretion when suspending the companies to enforce it.
“This is an administrative hearing, and the issue is: Did you violate the ordinance? If you didn’t, come before the board and say you didn’t and then provide us with records showing that. We haven’t received anything like that,” Rahman said. “The only thing I’ve received is, ‘it’s federal law, woe is me, you’re taking my income,’ but not any documentation to refute these bills that I’ve taken from customers.”
Garry Smith, who owns SOS Towing, said he wouldn’t be able to present refuting evidence because MPD officers took five boxes of paper records from his shops when they were raided in July. He also said he’s been unable to sit down with MPD and explain the charges they have concerns with.
While he denied violating the ordinance, Smith also told the council, either way, being repeatedly punished for past behavior with no chance to correct it isn’t fair to towing companies.
“In baseball, you get three [strikes], and we’ve had one. This should be brought up before a committee before you shut a business down. One person should not have that much power,” Smith said. “All I’m asking for y’all to do is to put us back to work. Let’s sit down and fix this ordinance, and if you catch us again, suspend us. I’m a small business owner, and I’m just trying to make a living.”
Tensions ran a bit high during the meeting, and some towing company representatives had to be quieted by the council. However, Battiste also took issue with questions some councilors were raising about MPD’s investigation and seemed to blame the department’s recruiting struggles on those types of inquiries.
“There are people out there today that won’t wear this uniform because of people who are supposed to represent them,” Battiste said before he was halted by Council Vice President Levon Manzie.
While Manzie said he understood Battiste’s frustration, he told the chief he’d be hard-pressed to find any City Council in Mobile’s history “that has supported law enforcement” as strongly as the “current iteration.”
While councilors ultimately voted 5-2 to deny all three appeals, many expressed a desire to revisit the ordinance that led to them. Manzie said plainly: “We have a broke ordinance,” adding he hopes the council can revisit the ordinance to help address some of these lingering issues quickly.
“Right now we’re living under what we have before us, and I have to give great difference to what [council attorney Wanda Cochran] has said to me — that chief has this ability to do what he’s done,” Manzie said. “Can I say I agree with that 100 percent? No. That’s why we’re going into a process to fix the ordinance so it will be clearer and fairer moving forward.”
The council’s public services committee is scheduled to meet and discuss the issue on Tuesday, Sept. 10, at 2 p.m., in the council’s conference room on the ninth floor of Government Plaza.
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