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Changes to trespass towing rule fail after Va. senator miscasts vote

A bill to change trespass towing rules in Northern Virginia fell in the state Senate Tuesday when a single senator miscast his vote from across the room. (Thinkstock)

WASHINGTON — A bill to change trespass towing rules in Northern Virginia fell in the state Senate Tuesday when a single senator miscast his vote from across the room.

The bill would have eliminated an upcoming local requirement in Arlington County that business or property owners sign off on each car that gets towed from their properties. The bill proposed that a blanket contract with a towing company be all the authorization needed to enforce private parking rules.

Sen. Dave Marsden’s bill had the support of towing companies and the Arlington Chamber of Commerce.

“This is time-consuming; it’s an intrusion on the owner of the business. This is handled in contract, and we need to honor contracts. It is just as illegal the first minute you’re in this spot as you are five or 10 minutes later,” Marsden said.

Concessions in the bill would have added a $150 fine for each time a towing company performs an illegal tow, limited the ability of towing companies to pay people to stand and watch for cars that may even briefly violate parking rules unless the contract with a business gives express permission, and added information to receipts on how drivers can file a complaint that they were towed illegally.

“Look — no one likes being towed, but folks have a right to protect their businesses,” Marsden said.

Arlington County Sen. Barbara Favola argued the issue should remain in the hands of local governments. Alexandria Sen. Adam Ebbin also backed the upcoming rules set to take effect in July that are meant to address what is sometimes referred to as “predatory towing.”

“It’s not in a retail property owner’s best interest to get it wrong when it comes to towing,” Ebbin said. “Current policy protects a private property owner’s unquestioned rights to control their parking spaces while ensuring that the same property owner cannot simply blame a tow on a third-party spotter who gets it wrong.”

There are similar signature requirements in Stafford County and Virginia Beach, the senators said, with few complaints.

“I am aware that this has been done in other parts of the state, but the problems in some of the more crowded suburbs of Northern Virginia have become acute, and the towing industry and local businesses … feel that they need to move these vehicles away expeditiously,” Marsden responded. “They’re taking up spots in a very crowded environment that legitimate customers need to access these businesses, and the second signature takes these small business owners and even large business owners away from their customers, away from their business. They just want to have a contract to have this taken care of.”

Sen. Scott Surovell said he has been wrongly towed four times in the last 10 years: three times within a few days after he and his wife moved into a condominium, and again about two years ago, when his car with official House of Delegates’ license plates was parked outside his campaign headquarters.

Marsden said he is 68 years old and had never been towed.

The bill initially passed the Senate Tuesday, 23-17. A few minutes later, the bill was brought back for a second vote, which is not uncommon when a senator casts a vote differently from how they intended to, but that vote drew “oohs” and “ahhs” in the chamber when it split evenly 20-20, and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam cast the tiebreaking “no” vote.

Several minutes later, Sen. Lionel Spruill asked whether the bill could come up for a third vote.

“I thought I gave the young man a thumbs up, and he said I gave it to him no,” he said.

Spruill had stepped out of the Senate chamber and apparently ducked back in to indicate his vote to a Senate page at his desk across the room when the vote came up unexpectedly for the second time amid action on other bills.

The Senate usually does not reconsider bills for a third vote, although it has happened in some instances.

Spruill’s request required unanimous consent, but seven senators — including Majority Leader Tommy Norment — blocked the request. Norment said it would set a bad precedent.