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Bloomington City Council considers private towing ordinance after complaints downtown

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A new Indiana law says even if you catch a tow truck driver before they tow your car away, they can still try to charge you.

FOX59 found out about the law after hearing complaints about towing in downtown Bloomington. Drivers said they were hooked up to a tow truck mere minutes after they parked in the Taco Bell lot at 7th and Walnut.

John Hannel said after he parked, he walked to the edge of the lot to read the menu on a food truck that was not yet open.

"There’s a curb there I was standing on, and by the time I turned around, my car’s hooked up," Hannel said. "I’m like, 'You can’t tow my car, man. I never left the parking lot, I’m standing right here. I’m telling you, I’m going to Taco Bell.'"

Hannel ended up paying the tow truck driver $120 in cash to drop his van off the truck.

Cristy Byers said she parked in the same lot during the middle of a work day and left the property to run an errand next door before she bought lunch.

"No more than seven minutes later, my car was gone," Byers said.

Byers did end up buying food, but her decision to leave the lot cost her big time.

"(He said), 'You’re gonna have to go across the street to the ATM machine, pull out $200 and I’ll take you to your vehicle,'" Byers said. "I just wasn’t thinking at the time. I wanted my car back, I wanted to get back to work."

A manager at Taco Bell pointed out that there is a sign in the parking lot that reads, "Customer parking only... If you leave the property, take your car with you. We will assume it's been abandoned if it's unattended."

The tow truck company refused further comment through an attorney. A spokesperson with Taco Bell's corporate office sent FOX59 this statement:

Our guests frequently tell us they can’t find a place to park due to the number of non-Taco Bell customers who inappropriately park in the lot, despite signage clearly stating non-customers will be towed. Our franchisee has no contractual or financial relationship with any towing company, but they ask that the tow truck driver verify whether the guests are in the restaurant before towing a car.

Both Byers and Hannel spoke to Bloomington police about their ordeals, and they're not the only ones. FOX59 found out that the Bloomington City Council has been drafting an ordinance that would regulate private towing.

"We've been talking about it for probably two years," said council member Andy Ruff.

Ruff said he had a draft of the ordinance ready earlier this year, but then the state legislature passed a new law that went into effect in July, regulating private towing.

FOX59 asked Bloomington attorney Brian Drummy to take a look at that law. He said it does appear to make what happened to Byers and Hannel legal.

"As far as I can tell, it is legal for (a company) to watch the lot and tow the vehicle as soon as they make the determination that someone is parked there that doesn’t have permission to park there," Drummy said.

Drummy did point out two parts of the law you should know about.

The first revolves around signs, like the one in Taco Bell's parking lot, which must say who is allowed to park in the private lot and who to call if you get towed. Ruff said Bloomington's ordinance will likely include extra requirements, like having a sign at every entrance to a lot.

Ruff also said he hoped to lay out how much a tow truck company can charge. The City of Bloomington caps its towing fees at $125, which would be less than the $200 Byers said she paid.

"We think that’s ... defensible to the state if it’s ever questioned as being reasonable (fees)," Ruff said.

As for Hannel's situation, where he says he was charged before his van was actually towed away, Drummy said that's a tougher call. The new law says that a towing company can charge you no more than "half of the amount of the fee the towing company normally charges" to drop your car, but it doesn't define what constitutes a reasonable fee.

"What my concern as a lawyer would be, especially if I wear my cynical lawyer hat, is that the tow truck companies could inflate their charges so that they can continue to charge whatever they’re charging now ," Drummy said.

Drummy's second piece of advice when it comes to the law is to make sure you get a receipt. The law does require a towing company to give you a receipt showing their typical fee and how much you paid. Hannel said he didn't get that.

"I asked him for a receipt. He said, 'I don’t have anything.' I said just write it on a piece of paper, he goes, 'Nope,'" Hannel said.

Hannel's next step could be to file a complaint with the Indiana Attorney General's Office, which the law gave jurisdiction to regarding private towing. He probably wouldn't be alone, as parking in Bloomington remains at a premium and parking in the wrong place doesn't come cheap.

"Parking and parking garages, we hear it all the time," Drummy said. "It’s about as common as hearing about IU basketball."

Ruff will no longer be serving on the Bloomington City Council in 2020, but city leaders told FOX59 that the council still planned to introduce a private towing ordinance in January.

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