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City Council License Committee Backs Bid To Crack Down On Predatory Towers, Require Towing License To Respond To Crash Scenes

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Following a one-month-delay, a City Council committee has endorsed an ordinance that would require towing companies to obtain a city license in order to respond to car crash scenes in Chicago.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) originally sought to pass the proposal through the City Council License Committee last month, but the vote was delayed over confusion about last-minute changes he had made to the proposal.

After briefing his colleagues since then, Villegas won unanimous support from the committee during a brief meeting on Wednesday. Villegas said he is seeking to crack down on so-called "rogue towers" who prey on people involved in traffic accidents by swooping in at crash scenes, falsely claim they were sent by the police or the driver's insurance company, and then charge people as much as $5,000 to get their car back after it's been hauled away.

"Today is the beginning of a safer and more accountable tomorrow as we move forward with requiring towers to be licensed by the city of Chicago if they are operating in the city," Villegas said. "Whatever is currently in place is not working, and we are responsible for protecting our city in partnership with state leaders."

Villegas originally sought to create two classes of licenses for tow truck operators in Chicago – one to allow companies to tow unauthorized vehicles from private property, and the other to allow companies to tow damaged or disabled vehicles from city streets.

However, just hours before last month's committee meeting, Villegas offered up a revised ordinance that focused solely on requiring licenses for tow truck operators seeking to haul away damaged or disabled cars from crash scenes. The last minute changes led to some confusion among his fellow aldermen, and License Committee Chair Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) delayed a vote until Wednesday's meeting.

Tow companies already are required to be licensed by the state in Illinois, but Villegas said state law allows municipal governments to set up their own licensing system, and he said requiring a city license would give Chicago more direct oversight of towing companies.

The alderman's licensing proposal would require tow companies to pay a $250 fee per truck, as well as $250 or $750 per storage lot, depending on if they have a state license.

The ordinance would prohibit tow truck drivers from stopping at or near a crash site to solicit a tow. They could only respond to a crash if called by the vehicle owner or operator, a police officer, or another government official.

The ordinance provides an exemption to the licensing requirement for tow truck drivers employed by the city or another government entity, and for companies that have city towing contracts. Towing operators that only haul unauthorized vehicles off of private property would not be required to get a city license.

Applicants would have to provide details on whether anyone with ownership interest in a towing company or any of their drivers has any felony convictions in the past five years, or has been in custody or on parole for a felony conviction during that time. They would also have to inform the city if any owners have applied for, renewed, or obtained a state towing license in the past five years, or had their state license revoked in that time.

Tow truck operators also would have to provide proof of insurance, a list of all their vehicles, and the location of all their storage lots.

The city would provide "registration emblems" to all licensed tow operators to display on all their tow trucks.

Tow companies also would be required to keep records of all stored vehicles, and any improperly towed vehicles must be released without charge.

Violators would face fines of $500 to $1,000 per offense. Tow truck operators who falsely claim to be a representative of law enforcement or government when they show up at a crash scene would face penalties of $10,000 to $20,000, as well as possible imprisonment.

Tow truck operators also could have their licenses suspended or revoked if they are caught at least three times illegally soliciting tow jobs at accident sites, or trying to impersonate a government official or insurance company employee.

Tim Lynch, senior director of government affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, told aldermen last month that predatory tow companies are "very prevalent" in Chicago.

"Let's face it, auto accidents are no fun. They're a very stressful experience. I was in one 15 years ago, I never want to go through it again. Thank God I wasn't hurt, and nobody else was hurt, but injuries happen," he said at the time. "The last thing any of us want is for some third party, unsolicited, to come in and try to take advantage of us in that stressful situation, and that's exactly what we're seeing quite often here on the streets of Chicago."

Lynch said other major cities – including Denver, Miami, and Los Angeles – already require city licenses for towing operators.

Chicago Police Sgt. Keith Blair, commanding officer of the Major Auto Theft Investigative Unit, told aldermen at the same meeting that rogue tow operators will promise free rentals and other things to convince a driver to allow them to haul away their vehicle, only to end up holding it hostage for an exorbitant charge.

On Wednesday, Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) said the proposed towing license ordinance "struck home" for him, after he had a nasty run-in with a tow truck driver one day earlier.

Lopez said he saw a rogue tow truck driver headed the wrong way on a one-way street in West Englewood, and when he confronted the driver, the man pulled over and approached the alderman and two other city employees, "intimating that he was ready to shoot us for interrupting him."

"No person – alderman, resident, or anyone else – should feel threatened in their own community by such reckless abandon and disregard by these less-than-reputable tow truck operators," Lopez said.

The ordinance now goes to the full City Council for a vote, likely at its next meeting on June 26. If approved by the full council, the ordinance would go into effect 90 days after passage and publication.

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