When her brand new 2010 Honda Civic was towed from Oahu Street on June 9 due to a parking violation, Stephanie Melchi became one of more than 100 Oahu vehicle owners per day whose cars are put on the hook and hauled off to await ransom.
A total of 12,867 vehicles were towed during a recent four-month period that ended June 15, according to Honolulu police. That’s an average of nearly 105 cars, trucks and SUVs that are hauled away every day.
But an untold number of tow-aways, including Melchi’s, never should have happened.
At the time, Melchi could only stand and watch with that helpless frustration that all drivers feel when their cars are dragged away right before their eyes.
Melchi’s emotions turned to outright anger when she later discovered that changes to state law require tow truck drivers to "unhook" towed vehicles — at no cost — when the owner is present.
Legislators changed Hawaii’s tow truck laws in 2008 to say, "If the vehicle is in the process of being hooked up or is hooked up to the tow truck and the owner appears on the scene, the towing company shall unhook the vehicle and shall not charge any fee to the owner of the vehicle."
In making the changes to island tow truck law, state legislators also repealed the old $50 "drop fee" to unhook a vehicle, eliminating any charge to release a car to an owner who’s on the scene.
TOW COMPANY COMPLAINTS
Vehicle owners can call the Department of Commerce and Consumer complaint line at 587-3222.
TOW TRUCK ACTIVITY ON OAHU
Between Feb. 12 and June 15:
» Honolulu police requested 5,604 vehicles be towed, not including collision-related tows.
» Private parties requested 7,263 vehicles be towed.
Source: Honolulu Police Department
It’s impossible to know how many of the nearly 13,000 Oahu drivers like Melchi also were standing by as their cars were towed between February and June.
But in an industry that perennially generates horror stories from car owners — and little sympathy for the tow companies that towed them — few people have filed formal complaints about inappropriate hook-ups.
In each of the last two years, a total of only eight vehicle owners across all islands have complained about tow companies violating the hook-up provision, said Stephen Levins, executive director of the state Office of Consumer Protection.
"Some were resolved by issuing warning letters, some were resolved with a reimbursement," Levins said. "There are definitely thousands of tows every year in the state and particularly on Oahu, a lot of which emanate from people who go to bars in Waikiki and the Kakaako area."
Melchi, 26, was hardly out partying.
Melchi normally parks her new Honda in her driveway, and readily admits she put it in a no-parking zone in front of her house on June 9 to keep her driveway clear for someone picking up a cabinet.
So Melchi has no dispute with the $50 parking ticket she received.
But she’s incensed at being charged $160 by Stoneridge Recoveries LLC for towing her Civic — over her protests, she says — to Stoneridge’s lot on Kahikapu Street near Honolulu Airport.
Melchi was dressed and ready for work as an X-ray technician at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children. Her boyfriend, David Hummer, was still in his pajamas when they heard a strange noise and ran out to the curb.
"I told the tow truck driver, ‘This is my car,’" Melchi said. "He said, ‘Give me $160 and I can drop it.’ I’ve never been towed before so I didn’t know what to do. I was frantic at that point. He just kept saying, ‘You’ve got to give me $160 to drop the car.’ … The cops told me later that I should have called them and they would have told him he should have given me my car."
Levins said state law is clear that tow truck drivers need to release vehicles when the owners are present.
The only potential gray area, Levins said, could be "a situation where a consumer is running down the tow truck from a block or two away and they wanted them to drop it — and they didn’t drop it."
Stoneridge officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Star-Advertiser.
But Stoneridge competitors such as Tow Jams say customers have been abusing the change in the rules.
"It happens regular, regular, regular, regular," Tow Jams Manager Julio Ashraf said one day last week. "Today, it happen once, twice, too many times already. You have it all hooked up and ready to go and then the owner show up. They know there is a law that we cannot charge them."
Having drivers appear and disrupt a tow means companies lose out on $100 — and often more, Ashraf said.
But Ashraf realizes people aren’t very sympathetic to the business plight of tow companies, especially in a tough economy.
"Who you going to cry to?" he asked. "Nobody listen to us."
Levins’ office receives dozens of tow-company related complaints every year alleging: excessive mileage charges; damage to vehicles; companies not accepting credit cards — or not having a required ATM on the premises as a substitute for not accepting credit cards; "or the drivers being rude," Levins said.
"It runs the gamut. No one’s very happy when they show up at the tow yard. And I’m sure the tow truck people don’t like being yelled at, either."
Joe Ornellas, site manager for the Lalea townhouse complex in Hawaii Kai, sees car owners become "fighting mad" when they’re about to be towed from Lalea.
But he sympathizes with the tow companies that spend the manpower, time and fuel to drive out to Lalea to remove illegally parked cars — only to go away with nothing when the owner appears.
"I don’t think it’s fair to the tow company," Ornellas said. "There’s rules and regulations. You break the rules, you should get towed."
Ornellas saw the same scenario played out last week at Lalea:
"This guy was parked on the grass and the tow guy came out and hooked him up," Ornellas said. "The tow wagon wouldn’t drop it because he wasn’t the registered owner. Then they found the registered owner and the tow truck driver went away empty-handed. … Yeah, there was yelling."
Melchi’s boyfriend, Hummer, said he was on the verge of yelling at the Stoneridge driver after the driver allegedly said the "drop fee" on Melchi’s Civic would be $160.
"It seemed unreasonable," Hummer said. "So he pulled the car onto his truck and drove away."
Then Hummer started doing his own research, realized the driver was wrong and started calling Stoneridge for compensation.
Two weeks later, Hummer says he has yet to be called back by Stoneridge for an explanation.
"It’s been very frustrating," Hummer said. "There has to be some way to fight this."