The Mobile Police Department is not seeking to extend the 60-day suspension of five local towing companies that have been banned from the rotating list it calls to accidents.
The announcement was made by MPD Attorney Wanda Rahman during Tuesday’s meeting of the Mobile City Council and was a welcome development for the companies, which included SOS Towing, Southport Towing, Casher’s Towing, A Plus Towing and Heroes Towing.
All five had been suspended from the MPD’s rotation list since they were raided in July as part of an MPD “administrative” investigation. While MPD doesn’t regulate private businesses, they are tasked with enforcing rules set by city ordinances for companies that tow on their behalf.
In justifying the suspension, police told city councilors that those five companies had been overcharging motorists by collecting fees that aren’t permitted under the ordinance. They then used the same justification to extend their suspension in August.
One company told Lagniappe it had all lost tens of thousands of dollars during the 60-day suspension. Others were concerned they might be being put out of business entirely.
Then, without much of an explanation of why the decision was made, Rahman said MPD would not be seeking a third suspension during the council meeting on Sept. 10. Shortly after those comments were made, all five companies had been reinstated to the rotation list.
“As of Today the second suspension is already up, and as of today, those companies are going to be put back on the wrecker list,” she told councilors.
Chief Lawrence Battiste has since told Lagniappe the MPD has wrapped up the administrative investigation that led to suspensions but said there is still an ongoing criminal probe looking at some of the same types of ordinance violations and whether they could result in charges for potential insurance fraud. None of the businesses have been charged criminally at this time.
However, the findings from MPD’s criminal probe will be turned over to the the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office once the investigation is completed. It’s worth noting that the DA’s office has already been proceeding with a separate investigation into another company, but that case is unrelated to MPD’s efforts to uncover violation’s of the city’s towing ordiance
Despite their suspensions being lifted, some of the five towing companies removed from the rotation list are continuing to raise concerns about how MPD’s investigation was handled.
They believe the city’s ordinance is outdated and that most private towing companies violate parts of it, yet for some reason, their’s were the only businesses that were punished.
Teresa Hoffman, whose husband works for one of the previously suspended companies, addressed the council Tuesday about an internal affairs complaint she filed against the MPD officers directing the towing investigation. She accused the department of using “selective enforcement.”
She said the police seemed to have quickly dropped the hammer on these five smaller companies but were ignoring reports about other, larger companies allegedly violating some of the same portions of the city ordinance.
To support her claims, Hoffman presented the councilors with an invoice from a tow that was conducted by Pitts and Sons involving a tractor-trailer that overturned in the Wallace Tunnel on May 3, 2019. The bill, a copy of which was shared with Lagniappe, includes a $1,600 charge for winching, which doesn’t appear to be allowed in the ordinance under any circumstances.
MPD officials have also indicated winching charges aren’t allowed to be collected.
In fact, when the MPD acknowledged last month that its own impound yard had, for years, been improperly charging motorists for fees that aren’t allowed under the city ordinance, some of the fees it reimbursed were for winching. The supervisor over the impound has since been transferred, but an MPD spokesperson would not say whether that was related to the overcharges.
Hoffman said she believes the companies that were subjected to this investigation were unfairly targeted while others that charged outside of the ordinance were not subject to raids that the local media were invited to or suspended from working with MPD for 60 days.
“Five small towing companies were raided live on local news by Chief [Lawrence] Battiste and armed detectives all for small violations they were immediately suspended and have been for sixty days from all towing for the city of Mobile. All of that was for less than $100 in violations,” Hoffman said. “Yet, this one Pitts and Sons invoice represents overcharges of thousands of dollars and nothing has happened. I have zero confidence that a fair and honest investigation has been conducted by MPD on this issue.”
When asked by the council to respond, Rahman said winching is allowed under the city’s ordinance in certain circumstances and said the particular accident in Hoffman’s example involved a tractor trailer. Yet, the South Alabama Towing and Recovery Association, which has represented the suspended companies, has suggested Rahman’s comments to the council were wrong.
The ordinance itself contains no mention of winching fees under the list of approved charges companies can bill for when working with MPD. A Lagniappe reporter reached out to Rahman seeking clarification but has yet to receive a response. Councilman Fred Richardson also seemed to think Rahman’s interpretation was off base, telling her that he’s read the ordinance and “didn’t see anything about winching at all.”
He said, based on the invoices he’s seen, Pitts and Sons should have been suspended as well.
‘[Hoffman’s] complaint is that we raid some of the companies but we refuse to do anything about others. Mr. Little is suspended, but Mr. Big we won’t touch,” Richardson said. “Until we start treating them all the same, I’m not voting to suspend another person. This is the second time I’ve gotten invoices from the same company and each time it’s a gross violation and nothing is done.”
Rahman rejected claims MPD has been selectively enforcing the towing ordinance or ignoring any complaints it receives from the public. She said all companies were treated fairly, and “just because we didn’t call [the person who filed a complaint] back, doesn’t mean we are not investigating.”
However, Richardson noted that Battiste took the initiative to suspend SOS Towing, Southport Towing, Casher’s Towing, A-Plus Towing and Heroes Towing over single violations discovered. In his mind, one is enough, and if any other company showed a single overcharge they should be taken off the rotation list for 30 days immediately and their name released to the public.
“If the police pull me over and I have marijuana in my car, it doesn’t matter how much I have stashed somewhere else. They going to arrest me for what’s in the car right then, and if they find something else, they’ll just add that to it,” he said. “We don’t need to keep on investigating. We’ve got a smoking gun. If the insurance company has something else, good, but we don’t need but one violation to suspend them.”
Lagniappe reached out to Pitts and Sons about the invoice but has yet to receive a response.
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