Towing evokes cheers, fears

Published Mar. 8, 1999|Updated Sept. 28, 2005

Opinions are split on the new policy to fight prostitution and drug deals.

Lately, the men who get handcuffed and thrown in jail for trying to pick up a prostitute are being told, "You're lucky."

As in, you're lucky we haven't started towing yet. You're lucky you don't have to fork over an extra $500. You're lucky you don't have to explain to your wife where the car is.

That's about to change. Like a growing number of Florida cities, St. Petersburg is readying its newest weapon in the war against sin: the tow truck.

The city will soon start impounding vehicles used to solicit prostitutes or buy illegal drugs. The idea is to increase the fear of getting arrested by hitting people where it really hurts _ their cars.

Critics of the tow-truck technique say it gives police too much power. They say it will hurt offenders' families while enriching the city's coffers.

Neighbors who pushed for the towing say they are sick of prostitution and all that it brings. They are sick of prostitutes near parks where their children play; sick of shady goings-on in parked cars; sick of bringing surgical gloves when they walk their dogs, knowing they might have to clean up around hypodermic needles and used condoms.

"In the past, we've chased it between Fourth Street, 34th Street and Central Avenue. Hopefully this'll be a better deterrent," said Brian Longstreth, president of the United Central Neighborhood Association. "Statistics show many people who solicit prostitutes here are from out of the area, so maybe we'll get them to go somewhere else."

While this strategy is sprouting up all over the state, Tampa Bay area cities are actually taking a more gentle approach than cities such as Sarasota, West Palm Beach or Miami _ cities that will tow a car even if it doesn't belong to the person being arrested.

Tampa, which started towing cars for prostitution and drug crimes in late 1997, provides for an "innocent owner defense." If someone borrows his mom's or buddy's car and gets arrested, Tampa won't impound the car. Neither will St. Petersburg.

"We have tried to use this new ordinance gingerly. We're fairly liberal about giving the car back to an innocent owner so the law will not be perceived as oppressive," Tampa assistant city attorney Kirby Rainsberger said.

"We'd rather let 10 cars go to 10 people who may have known what was going on, rather than make someone pay $500 who didn't know."

Other cities reject this as too lenient.

"If we did that, just about half the cases would disappear," said Mike Amezaga, legal adviser to the West Palm Beach police. The point, he said, is to make people think twice before loaning their car out, knowing that they are responsible for how it will be used.

"Drug dealers learn on the street to do things," Sarasota city attorney Mark Singer said. "If they know they can avoid consequences by using someone else's vehicle, they will do so."

Miami has the same policy, except it has raised its impoundment fine from $500 to $1,000.

St. Petersburg police Chief Goliath Davis III signed an order Thursday to start the towing, but he said it could be weeks before details are nailed down and officers are trained.

Police will be able to impound a car if they have probable cause to believe it was used to solicit a prostitute, make a drug deal or carry illegal drugs.

If the car is leased, stolen or not being used by its owner, it can't be impounded.

The car owner can request a hearing within two days to contest the towing. A hearing master will decide whether police had probable cause.

To get a car out of the impound lot, its owner must pay a $500 fine plus a $50 hearing fee, $55 for towing and $8 a day for storage. After 30 days, the car is turned over to the towing company.

The $500 fine goes into the city's general fund. The city will refund it if the car owner is found innocent in criminal court, said Sherman Smith, legal adviser to the St. Petersburg police.

As for the innocent owner defense, Smith said, "It may be something we want to revisit a year or two down the road."

Police already seize cars, boats, homes and cash linked to felony drug crimes.

The difference is that, in those cases, the government goes to civil court to seek ownership of the vehicle or possession.

The towing company the city uses, Tri-J Co., is already keeping 25 drug-seizure cars in its impound lot. There's space for 25 more, said owner J.R. Kolodziej, who will shoot a video spot for the Police Department's cable show this week warning of the get-tough towing law.

It's hard to say how many cars will be towed. Tampa impounded 863 vehicles in its first year.

In St. Petersburg, close to 150 johns are arrested annually on solicitation charges, with about two-thirds using their cars to pick up prostitutes.

Sarasota has towed 279 autos since August 1997. Of those, 207 people paid the $500 fee while 62 others abandoned their cars. Only two cars were ordered returned. The rest are awaiting a final hearing.

The idea is gaining converts. Kissimmee started towing johns' cars two weeks ago. Fort Pierce does it. Fort Myers and Tallahassee are looking into it. The Miami-Dade County town of Hallandale has started, despite one town leader's worries of "a police state."

Critics of these towing ordinances, such as Sarasota public defender Elliot Metcalfe, say they allow the government to take away a person's car without a conviction, without the right to a lawyer, without the burden of proof required in a criminal case.

"We're giving government the power to take things away from citizens without giving them the power to defend themselves," Metcalfe said. "This is dangerous. We take what should be a criminal process and turn it into an easy moneymaking tool of government."

These arguments hold little sway along St. Petersburg's 34th Street, where prostitutes walk.

"We're seeing an impact on the neighborhoods, with people taking this back into residential streets," said Susan Ajoc, a neighborhood partnership coordinator. "We're letting people know that if you're going to do this, you need to do this someplace else."

Towing for cash

Several cities in Florida tow the vehicles of people arrested on prostitution or drug charges:

City Cars impounded Money collected

Miami 2,872 $2,432,500

W. Palm Beach 661 $ 283,535

Tampa 863 $ 253,500

Sarasota 279 $ 103,500

Note: All figures are most recent available

Source: City governments