City Council looks to address Barnacle parking devices

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File

City Council appears poised to regulate or ban the Barnacle, a device that is attached to the windshield of an improperly parked vehicle until the driver pays a fine.

Allegations of price-gouging – a deputy police commissioner says there is an “extortion aspect” to the Barnacle – were made during a hearing on the subject Monday. Private lot owners argue the tool is needed, in part due to a lack of police enforcement.

While the Barnacle does not disable the vehicle, it blocks the driver’s view and latches onto the glass with 1,000 pounds of force, according to the company. Offenders can have the device released by paying a penalty, and lot managers are able to monitor the process through a phone app.

Lawmakers credited a 6ABC investigation earlier this month with helping to bring the issue to their attention. The article reported that drivers in Manayunk were initially fined $475 for overstaying their time in a private paid lot, before getting a $300 refund once the Barnacle was returned.

“This is a huge problem,” PPD Deputy Commissioner Francis Healy said during the hearing.

“We’ve heard of cases where people have actually, quite frankly, kicked out the windshield, because it was cheaper than paying the price to get the Barnacle removed,” he added. “We’ve seen people driving off like Ace Ventura with their head out the window.”

In some cases, the Barnacles are being deployed by lot owners and individuals protecting access to their driveways, not towing companies, which are subject to regulation.

Whether the technology is legal was a topic of debate at the meeting, with a senior attorney from the city’s Law Department weighing in, via email, that the Barnacle is prohibited under current law. There was some confusion, however; Healy, who helped draft the towing code, said he was under the belief that it did not apply.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s office did not immediately respond Monday afternoon to a request for clarification from the Law Department.

Healy said Barnacle users can charge whatever they want, with officers left with little authority to intervene.

“Quite frankly, I think these things should be illegal,” he told Council. “I think it’s extortion.”

Rashawn Allen, Barnacle’s president, said the company works with more than 50 municipalities nationwide and intends to be “a safer, greener, more convenient way” to enforce parking rules. He told lawmakers that the firm has about 30 clients in Pennsylvania and only a few in Philadelphia.

“We at Barnacle do not condone or support predatory immobilization, predatory pricing in any shape or manner,” he said. “We actually have all of that stuff listed out in our agreement.”

Allen said his team reaches out when the company receives complaints and drops repeat offenders.

“Whatever it is you’re doing right now with your clients in Philadelphia is not working,” Councilmember Quetcy Lozada responded. “And it is predatory.”

Lozada said Barnacle should be more proactive in ensuring clients are not taking advantage of people.

Among Barnacle’s clients is Frankford’s A. Bob Towing, which was mentioned in the 6ABC story. Mikina Harrison, of A. Bob, suggested Council reconsider its “ticket-to-tow” ordinance, which went into effect in 2017.

The law required Philadelphia police to issue a ticket before a towing company could remove a vehicle from private property.

“We called the police,” said Tonya Looney, community manager at the Dane, an apartment complex in Wynnefield. “Sometimes they are here to ticket cars, and sometimes they don’t show at all.”

The Dane contracts with A. Bob to make sure non-residents do not park in spaces reserved for tenants, who pay for the spots. Barnacles has been “a lifesaver,” Looney said.

“I do want regulation regarding the Barnacles,” Harrison said. “I think there should be a set fee. I think there should be certain standards in place.”