The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "The Law Q&A" runs in the Champaign News Gazette.
My car got towed from a parking lot at an apartment complex. There was no sign saying anything about unauthorized vehicles being towed. Is that legal? If not, can I make them refund the money I had to pay to get my car back?
If you don’t know, they can’t tow. For you to know, they have to give you notice. That’s why Illinois law requires a warning sign before vehicles can be towed from private property.
Tows from public property are different. Those must be ordered by law enforcement. That’s often done when a vehicle’s left too long, or creates a hazard.
Tows from private property are ok if the property owner says a vehicle is trespassing. It’s trespassing if it remains after getting notice it’s not allowed. That notice usually comes from a sign.
The law that applies to all tows is found in the Illinois Motor Vehicle Code. Specifically, it’s in a section headed “Abandoned, Lost, Stolen, or Unclaimed Vehicles.” Officially, tows from private property are governed by Section 5/4-203(f) of volume 625 of the Illinois Compiled Statutes.
Unless you’re parked at a single family residence, where you’re presumed to know that your car can be towed, the law requires either a personal notice to you, or a general notice to the public. A properly posted sign is how most private property owners notify the public that cars can be towed.
The law's quite specific about the sign's look, location, and content. Location-wise, there must be a sign at each entrance that lets vehicles into the property. Those signs must be within 5 feet of the public street. If there are “no curbs or access barriers,” then there must be signs posted “not less than one sign each 100 feet of lot frontage.”
But, with 2-, 3-, or 4-family residences, the sign can be located “at the perimeter of the parking lot, in a position where the notice is visible to the occupants of vehicles entering the lot.”
Warning signs must have reflective letters at least 2 inches high, “on a contrasting background.” The bottom of the sign must be at least 4 feet off the ground.
A warning sign must state that unauthorized vehicles will be towed at the vehicle owner’s expense, and provide the name and phone number of the towing service that removes the vehicle.
It doesn’t relate to the sign, but the law says property owners must give “express written instructions” to the towing company before anything can be towed.
Finally, anybody who tows must be licensed.
If the law isn’t followed, the towing is not legal, and you shouldn't owe for the towing charges. If the towing company, or property owner, won’t voluntarily refund your money, the only other way is to sue in a small claims court (unless you want more than $10,000). You’d have to prove there are no signs, so take pictures now to be able to show the way things were when your car was towed.