Court of appeals: Illegally parked car is an “emergency situation” under Indiana law

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The view to the east of the parking lot at the southeast corner of the intersection of 6th and Madison streets in downtown Bloomington, the former location of a Chase Bank drive-through (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)

A ruling issued by Indiana’s court of appeals this past week says that if a car without a permit is parked in a private permit-only lot, a towing company can tow the illegally parked car without waiting 24 hours, even if it’s the only car parked in the lot.

The court of appeals decision reversed a lower court ruling by Monroe County circuit court judge Elizabeth Cure. She had ruled that a car parked in a permit lot does not interfere with the business operations of a permit-only parking lot until “the point at which a permit holder cannot find a space due to the presence of a non-permit vehicle.”

The lawsuit was filed in June 2018 when a driver parked his 1999 Honda Accord in the empty parking lot at the southeast corner of 6th and Madison streets, which was previously a Chase Bank drive-through.

According to the complaint, there were some signs marking the lot as “permit only” but none on the side where the driver parked. When the driver returned to his car after visiting Bloomington Salt Cave, he discovered his car was gone and wound up paying $240 to retrieve it from Speedy Wrecker Company.

Key to the court of appeals ruling is the concept of “emergency situation.”

Ordinarily, an “abandoned vehicle” can’t be towed under the state statute, until 24-hours after the vehicle has been tagged with a notice. An exception to the 24-hour waiting requirement is made for an “emergency situation.” It’s defined in the statute to mean a situation when an abandoned vehicle “interferes physically with the conduct of normal business operations.”

The lower court ruling essentially found that a vehicle doesn’t interfere physically with normal business operations of a permit-only lot, until it’s actively depriving a permitted car of a space. The court of appeals countered that analysis by saying:

If the owner or operator of a for-pay parking lot cannot invoke the emergency exception when an unauthorized car parks in the lot, then essentially, there is no such business as a for-pay parking lot. Under [plaintiff’s ]interpretation of the statutes, anyone could park in the parking lot with impunity as long as they moved their car within twenty-four hours and there would be no incentive to purchase a permit and thus no business … to operate.

The ruling this past week means that the owner of a permit-only parking lot can have unpermitted cars that park there immediately towed.

City attorney Mike Rouker told The Square Beacon he does not see that court of appeals ruling would have any impact on Bloomington’s new non-consensual towing ordinance, which regulates companies that provide towing services to property owners.

The new ordinance was enacted by Bloomington’s city council in mid-February.

Starting July 1, companies that tow vehicles that are illegally parked on private property in Bloomington will need a license from the city to provide the service to property owners.

Highlights of the law include a $350 annual license fee for tow companies that do non-consensual tows. Those companies can’t charge vehicle owners more than $135 for basic towing, $25 for use of a dolly, and $25 per day storage, to retrieve their towed vehicles.

Companies also have to offer vehicle owners the chance to pay 20 percent of their fees and sign a payment agreement for the balance.

Rouker told The Square Beacon that the city is still working on the paperwork that towing companies will need to fill out, so there aren’t any license applications, yet.