Towing angst? Then don't steal parking space

"Don't do the crime if you can't do the time." Allegedly, this is what older criminals tell their juniors. It's also my advice to people who ignore No Parking signs and then squawk when they get towed.

I recently heard from a woman I'll call Lucy Jenkins, who was outraged over her treatment after being towed one evening from a downtown parking lot. (The consumer declined to use her real name. Normally, I'd put down my pen, but this case raised important issues, so I'm giving pseudonyms to both her and the towing company.)

Jenkins began by explaining that although she realized it cost $5 to park after hours, she only had a $20 bill– and a couple who entered the lot right behind her said they parked there "all the time" without paying. So she did the same and left to meet her husband at a restaurant on the Downtown Mall.

He walked her to her car after dinner– or, at least, he walked her to the parking lot. The car was gone.

The sign that explains the after-hours honor system (in which you put $5 in an envelope in a slot, then display a ticket stub on your dashboard) also says that if you get towed, you should call a company we'll call Smedley Brothers Towing.

Jenkins called and was told to come to Smedley's downtown impound lot. She claims that the dispatcher said that it would cost "$100 for the tow and $20 for the fine," which is a penalty paid to the lot's owner.

Jenkins and her husband went to the impound lot, where two Smedley's employees met them. After paying the $120 and getting a receipt, Jenkins's husband was told to accompany the two men around back to retrieve the car. It was late by now, and Jenkins says that the employees were so rude– she referred to them as "bums"– that in hindsight, she wished she'd called the police to escort and protect her husband.

Jenkins called me a day or so later to contest the legality of the charges.

But even if the employee had verbally erred in describing the breakdown– which should have been $95 for the after-hours tow, and $25 to the lot's owner, which is also spelled out on the sign– the total was legal. After all, it was late evening, the business was closed, and for all we knew, the dispatcher could have been asleep when the call was routed to her. Jenkins, however, seemed to believe that this was evidence of illegal pricing.

I was more interested in what went into her decision not to pay merely because she didn't have the right change.

"You could have left a note on your windshield," I pointed out, "and gotten change; lots of places on the Mall are open at that hour." She rejected this out of hand, as if that would have been tantamount to conducting physics experiments on the hood of her car. Things got a bit testy when I pointed out that it came down to a simple formula: Pay, or try to get something for free. I didn't use the word "shoplifting," but it was on the tip of my tongue.

As for being afraid for her husband's safety, I said that if it had been me, I would have been there sans husband and would have had no qualms about accompanying the Smedley's employees, no matter how inelegant their manner, to my car. That went over as well as the rest of my responses, and the conversation ended shortly after.

Can't stomach being towed? Then don't park illegally.

And if you do get towed, don't expect dispatchers who never misspeak, elegant surroundings, or drivers who read Proust between calls.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second St. NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.