- Photo by Lance Yamamoto
- Kristina Thesken and Coyote Bryant took PPI to small claims court.
When Coyote Bryant and Kristina Thesken stopped by Calafia Taqueria in Alameda one night five months ago, they didn't expect to be there long. The couple parked their car in the open lot of Discount City and walked across Webster Street to pick up dinner for themselves and some friends visiting from out of town. It took maybe 30 minutes, but within 11, their car was gone.
Private Property Impound Inc., or PPI, which has a contract to tow cars from Discount City, had towed the couple's Toyota Corolla, and when they arrived at PPI's lot in East Oakland, it cost them $470 to retrieve their car.
Bryant and Thesken said PPI did not provide a copy of the written authorization for the private tow, a copy of their towing fees, or the company's motor carrier identification number — all of which is required by law.
The couple has taken the tow company to small claims court — one of more than a dozen lawsuits brought against PPI in recent years — to recover the fees they allege were illegally obtained, as well as extra damages for the inconvenience, according to Alameda County Superior Court records. But Bryant said that he and Thesken are one of the lucky ones. "They are essentially stealing people's cars," he told the Express. "And if they don't have the resources to get their car back, then it gets sold."
Over the years, the problem of people having their cars towed from private lots, often illegally, leaving many stranded and on the hook for hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars' worth of fees has earned several names: bandit towing, pirate towing, and predatory towing.
And the Express has found that oversight of the East Bay towing industry is limited. As of mid-October, at least 19 towing companies in the region were operating without valid permits; people's cars and personal property are being illegally confiscated. In addition, data from the Oakland Police Department shows that tows initiated by law enforcement are disproportionately impacting low-income people of color in East Oakland.
And one of the worst offenders in the East Bay is PPI.
California law establishes clear parameters for towing companies: They must have valid registrations with the U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as all of the necessary permits, notably, an active Motor Carrier Permit, or MCP, with the state of California. MCPs require that the permit holder provide proof of insurance coverage, workers compensation, and, if they are a business, registration on the state and county level.
Records reviewed by the Express indicate that PPI Towing, owned by the Wayne Daniel Russo, does not have a valid MCP and is thus operating unlawfully. Russo and PPI officials did not respond to requests for comment for this report.
When towing companies contract with private businesses, like Discount City, it is known as a "general authorization," which gives the towing company permission to remove cars that have been parked for more than one hour as long as it is authorized by the property owner or an agent of the property owner.
California Vehicle Code Section 22593 makes it clear that the only times a car can be towed from private property without an authorizing signature from the property owner or their agent is when the car is parked within 15 feet of a fire hydrant, in a fire lane, or when it interferes with points of entry and exit.
But that didn't stop PPI from towing Philip Ferguson's car from an apartment complex on 167th Avenue in San Leandro in February 2017. Ferguson said he saw the white PPI tow truck waiting in the parking lot when he arrived but that he received permission from the manager of the complex to briefly park so he could deliver groceries to a friend of his who was bedridden.
He said it took less than 10 minutes to drop off the groceries, but when he returned, he found that his car was gone, along with the PPI tow truck. A friend picked him up and immediately took him to the PPI's lot on San Leandro Street in East Oakland, but it still cost him $370 to get his car back. On top of that, his car was towed in gear, which he said screwed up the vehicle's alignment.
Ferguson took PPI to court shortly after, and a judge awarded him $500 in restitution, according to court records. That was in late May 2018, but PPI still hasn't paid him, he said.
Diane Jones had slightly better luck. Less than two weeks before Ferguson had his car towed from his friend's apartment complex, Jones was stopping into Lena's Soul Food Cafe on High Street in Oakland after just having finished settling her mother into a convalescent home.
She admits that she forgot to show her disability placard, but said she wasn't in the restaurant for more than six minutes when her car was towed. But there were no signs or notices to indicate that PPI had taken it. She said that other business owners in the complex told her that PPI frequents the lot and recommended she call.
It would end up costing her roughly $380 to retrieve her vehicle, so Jones disputed the tow and took the company to court. The judge ordered PPI to reimburse Jones $400 for the tow and court filing fees, but, for almost a year, the towing company refused to pay, she said. Earlier this year she finally got her money, but only after filing a request with the Alameda County Sheriff's Office to enforce the court order.