Just as Howard Wood and his girlfriend, Jennifer Evans, were starting to enjoy their vegetable samosas on a recent Thursday evening at the tiny Kabab & Curry House restaurant in Durham, they were abruptly transported into the twilight zone of private parking lot towing.
"You're being towed!" an arriving diner cried. Wood sprinted out to see Evans' car getting the hook. The tow-truck driver had already hoisted another car onto his contraption. Two more cars were booted, awaiting their fate.
The four drivers had all missed, or chosen not to heed, the sign that said the parking lot next to the restaurant—which would have been empty, but for their cars—was reserved for two other businesses. Wood didn't remember seeing the sign, but conceded that he might have just assumed it was OK to park there regardless.
"I'll be honest," Wood said a few days later. "I'm not aware—like most people with signs, sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't. I remember going, well, the [other businesses were] closed, so what's it going to hurt?"
Thinking back on it, Wood had cooled down some. But not when he related the damage: The Chandler's Towing driver hit up the four owners for $150 apiece, cash only, for a total of $600 for not towing their cars away.
The experience of Wood and his fellow diners is a common one in the Bull City, which imposes no regulations on towing on private property. The police chief is weighing some protections for drivers in similar situations.
The incident made Wood so mad he called the police. An officer came, only to say there was nothing he could do. "The driver wasn't rude," Wood added. "But he definitely was arrogant. He knew he had us."
Chandler's, which has been in business for 40 years, has six tow trucks and operates in Raleigh and Chapel Hill as well as Durham, according to owner Felix Chandler. His customers include most of the apartment complexes in Durham.
People who park their cars illegally are taking what doesn't belong to them, said Chandler, who was not familiar with Wood's particular case, but said in general that signs give them fair warning, and so, in most cases, do the businesses they visit. His loyalty is to his clients.
"We have to go in there and do what the customers want us to do," he said. His drivers do accept debit cards as well as cash, but not credit cards.
Chandler said the charge is $150 whether his trucks tow your car away or just boot and release it. The latter is actually "a convenience," he argued, because if your car is towed to his impound lot, you're subject to other charges including a $30 per day storage fee.
Durham Police Chief José Lopez confirmed that the city does not limit what a tow-truck company can charge. The city charges drivers $125 for cars towed from public property, Lopez said. It rotates the business among 25 companies, not including Chandler's.
Lopez called Durham's lack of control over private towing "frustrating," because citizens "are not properly served." The absence of regulations means he has no idea how many cars are towed involuntarily from private property, he said.
But the police are often called first, by drivers who think their cars have been stolen.
Lopez says his department is revising its towing manual and plans to include a requirement that private as well as publicly initiated tows be reported to the police. A private vendor is offering to track all towing in the city, he said, and he's considering whether to recommend that service to the City Council, as well as whether private towing charges should be capped.
"At this time, it's in the early stages," he added in a follow-up e-mail.
Councilman Eugene Brown said the subject of towing charges arises about once a year, and the council has a permanent subcommittee on towing. Brown said the council should consider making changes to protect citizens.
The $150 fee "seems excessive," Brown said. "I don't blame the guy for being pissed."
When this issue of "predatory towing," as Mayor Charles Meeker termed it, raised its head in Raleigh four years ago, the City Council set a limit of $100 for involuntary towing from private property, with a $50 limit if the car owner is present and asking to be "unhooked." Also, towing companies must accept credit cards and staff their impound lots around the clock so owners can recover their cars within 45 minutes.
As far as Wood is concerned, Durham officials should have already taken similar action. The proprietor of a small laundry cleaning and delivery service, Wood says he's never paid much attention to community affairs. Now, he's determined to "expose" the towing companies and convince elected leaders to crack down.