Vehicles may need to be towed for a number of reasons. Georgia state law regulates tow companies in the event of non-consensual towing and repossession. It covers everything from how much a tow company can charge to how their signage should look to the requirements vehicle owners must meet to get their car back.
Defining Non-consensual Towing
In the state of Georgia, "non-consensual" towing occurs when someone improperly parks their vehicle or otherwise trespasses on private property. Towing typically occurs at the property owner's request without consent from the vehicle's owner or operator. Georgia defines private property as property that the government does not own.
Most tow truck companies that engage in non-consensual towing of vehicles from private properties must have a Non-Consensual Towing permit (NCT), but not all companies need an NCT permit. Exempt companies include a towing service that tows vehicles with the owner or operator's consent and companies that tow vehicles as an extension of law enforcement and does not perform non-consensual tows from private property.
Georgia Towing Company Fees and Permits
Georgia law caps towing company fees in its Maximum Rate Tariff, but some municipalities may charge a lower maximum than the state standard. A towed-vehicle owner should inquire about local ordinances to find out how much it will cost them to get their car back. Towing companies cannot charge storage fees in the first 24 hours after a vehicle's removal, and there can be no additional fees for dollies, lifts, trailers, slim jims or other equipment or services.
Non-consensual, private-party towing companies pay an annual filing fee of $300 for a permit to operate. Those working without a permit can face criminal and civil penalties, which carry up to 12 months in jail and a maximum $2,500 fine. A towing company must maintain safety standards, carry insurance and have its information on file with the Georgia Department of Public Safety (DPS). Georgia municipalities may have additional towing rules and regulations, such as towing at specific times of the day.
Non-consensual Towing and Private Property
The DPS is the agency that oversees and enforces non-consensual towing in the state. Towing companies that perform this type of service must have a contract with a private property owner, according to Georgia Code Section 44-1-13. This law does not cover the placement of a boot on a vehicle or other types of non-consensual immobilization, consensual towing or towing from government property.
A private property owner or their agent has the right to tow a vehicle if someone parked it without their authorization and the property owner has posted a sign saying that they will remove vehicle's at the owner's expense. The sign must also notify owners where they can recover their towed vehicle and how to retrieve it.
Private Property and Towing Signs
Private property owners must place towing signs at all designated entrances to a parking area or lot where there are prohibitions. If there is no designated entrance, the signs must be visible from all parking areas and be at least 12 x 18 inches in size with minimum lettering of three-quarters of an inch. Signs at designated parking lot entrances should be a minimum of four feet above the site's grade – with no entrance, they should be six feet above the site's grade.
All posted signs must be clearly visible without natural or man-made obstructions. All tow signs on private property should have:
- The words "Private Parking" in bold at a minimum of 1 and ½ inches high.
- Warning that towing will occur for unauthorized vehicles on the property.
- Towing company contact information, including name, address, phone number and location of the impound lot.
- Daily storage and towing fees.
- Company's hours of operation.
- Form of payment a vehicle owner can use to retrieve their vehicle.
A tow truck company cannot relocate a vehicle from a property that does not have signs posted or where the signs that are posted are not in compliance at the time the tow takes place. Sign removal must occur within 15 days of the termination of the towing contact. Rules for signs do not apply to private residential properties with less than four residential units.
Owner Return During Non-consensual Towing
A tow truck cannot take a car away or charge a fee for the tow if the operator or owner returns with the ignition key and immediately proceeds to remove it from the property. If the tow truck driver already hooked it to the hoist or otherwise loaded the vehicle to the tow truck, but has not left the property, they must release the vehicle. An operator's fee may apply.
When releasing a vehicle, the tow truck driver will hand the vehicle operator a receipt with the release date and time, the total amount charged, the property location and the towing company's contact information. Once the tow truck leaves the property, there will be an assessment of charges per the Maximum Rate Tariff, and the operator's fee will not apply.
Attendants and the Impound Facility
Impound facilities must have attendants to provide reasonable access to towed vehicles six days per week. An attendant must also be on call 24 hours a day, as they have the authority to release vehicles to their owners, provided they meet the legal requirements. A person claiming an impounded vehicle should have proof of their identity and pay all towing and storage charges. The company cannot charge storage fees during times of closure when the owner cannot reclaim the car.
The vehicle owner must have a valid driver's license, ignition key and additional documents indicating ownership, such as a title, registration card, bill of sale or lease contract. Once they fulfill these requirements, the impound company will release the car and give them a receipt, which both the owner and the attendant must sign. It will then be part of the towing company's record.
Government Properties and Non-consensual Towing
Georgia defines government property as roads, military locations and government buildings and land. Vehicle owners must check their county, city or state ordinances regarding parking restrictions and towing laws in their area regarding public right-of-way on government property. When towing occurs from government properties, the vehicle owner is responsible for all removal, towing and storage fees.
State and local laws authorize towing companies to enforce ordinances and to hold the vehicle until the owner pays the fees and fines incurred as a result of the tow. They will not release the vehicle until the owner satisfies their debt. Most local ordinances limit city, county and state liability for damages or loss caused by a vehicle's removal, seizure, storage or tow.
Complaints About a Non-consensual Towing Company
Vehicle owners who have a dispute with a towing company should first contact that company to resolve the issue. If the company violates DPS regulations, the vehicle owner should report the violations to the DPS. Complaints about city or county ordinances or code violations should go to local law enforcement.
A vehicle owner can also file a complaint through the Better Business Bureau. Depending on the severity of damages, costs or loss they incur, they may also wish to consult an attorney.
Car Repossession in Georgia
A person who is late on their car payments or who defaults on their lien faces the possibility of repossession of their vehicle. The lien holder or creditor has the authority to seize the car by towing it from someone's property, selling it, and then suing the borrower for what they owe on the vehicle. Georgia does not have a deadline for missed payments – a lender can repossess a vehicle if the borrower is only a few days late. Lien holders have no legal obligation to work with a borrower.
Vehicle owners should try to avoid repossession at all costs. Their credit will suffer, as the repossession will stay on their report for seven years. If the lender sues them for a deficiency judgment and wins, that also shows up on their credit report.
Towing a Repossessed Vehicle
Georgia allows repo companies to take a vehicle from a person's property right in front of them, as long as they don't "breach the peace." This means they cannot take it by force, create a public disturbance, make loud and unnecessary noise, damage property or threaten the vehicle owner. Repo companies cannot take a car from inside a person's garage, but they can take it from a driveway.
A repo company also cannot trick the borrower into bringing their vehicle to a repair shop with the intent of seizing it there. Conversely, the borrower cannot hide their vehicle with the intent to defraud the lender.
What Happens After Repossession
According to Georgia Code Section 10-1-36, the lender must notify the borrower of their right to get their vehicle back within 10 days of its repossession. The lender must also give the borrower the opportunity to pay the remainder of the loan balance to reclaim their vehicle. How much they owe may include other expenses, including towing charges.
The borrower may wish to release the car to lender instead of reclaiming it, at which point the lender can sell it at public auction. Georgia law requires lenders to notify the former vehicle owner of an auction sale. The sale proceeds will apply to the borrower's debt. If the lender doesn't sell the car or sells it for less than the amount they are owed, the responsibility for the remaining deficiency falls on the borrower.
Consensual Towing in Georgia
If a vehicle owner authorizes their car to be towed, that towing is "consensual," meaning they call a tow company themselves when the car breaks down or is involved in an accident. If they are unhappy with their experience with the towing company, they can file a complaint in the same way they would if the towing was non-consensual.
They should first contact that company to resolve the issue. If they cannot resolve it with customer service or staff, they should then put their complaint in writing and send it to management. If the tow occurred within city limits, they can check the city's towing ordinance and its regulations to confirm that the towing company acted lawfully when towing their motor vehicle.
If it occurred outside city limits or their problem remains unsolved, they should contact an attorney or file a claim in a Georgia small claims court in the county where the towing company does business.
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.