California Court of Appeal Declares San Francisco’s Poverty Tows Unconstitutional As Legislature Confronts Towing Policies Statewide
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 24, 2023
PRESS CONTACT: Raya Steier, 530-723-2426, firstname.lastname@example.org
San Francisco, CA– Last Friday, the California Court of Appeal held that San Francisco’s policy of towing lawfully and safely parked vehicles without a warrant, solely due to unpaid parking tickets, violates the California Constitution. San Francisco’s towing policies permanently deprive thousands of low-income San Franciscans who cannot afford to pay their parking tickets of their vehicles . The Court of Appeal’s decision signals an end to San Francisco’s illegal towing practice that trapped hardworking, low-income residents into a vicious cycle of poverty and astronomical debt. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF), Bay Area Legal Aid, and the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, pursued this appeal on behalf of the Coalition on Homelessness.
Every year in California, cities push struggling families deeper into poverty by towing thousands of legally and safely parked vehicles solely because the owner has unpaid parking citations. These “poverty tows” only make things more difficult for low-income residents, seizing what is often the only means of transportation for families who are struggling financially. When families still cannot afford to pay their tickets and exorbitant tack-on fees, cities sell their cars at a junk auction—effectively ensuring that they won’t be able to keep their jobs and stay afloat. They lose their jobs, childcare, healthcare, shelter, and safety all over a few unpaid parking tickets.
Despite years of advocacy by civil rights groups and community advocates, San Francisco had refused to stop these poverty tows, except for pausing its practice during the COVID pandemic. Nonsensically, the City’s poverty tows actually cost the City more money than they brought in, wasting taxpayer money in the process.
The Court of Appeal has now declared this practice unconstitutional in a decision that reverberates across California. It is no longer permissible for cities in California to tow and sell legally and safely parked vehicles to collect parking ticket debts without judicial authorization. Disregarding established case law, San Francisco had claimed that poverty tows are necessary to promote public safety under the “community caretaking doctrine”. The Court of Appeals was not moved by the City’s argument, and adamantly rejected its assertion that tows of safely and lawfully parked vehicles without a warrant is important for public safety. The Court also observed that the City bypassed judicial procedures that would otherwise protect low-income people.
But San Francisco is not the only city with a cruel and improvident towing regime. Across California, debt tows snowball into situations where drivers are required to cough up thousands of dollars out of pocket before they can get their vehicle back. Cities charge owners at least $500 to retrieve their vehicle from tow yards, in addition to massive daily storage fees. If the owner can’t pay these inflated charges, their vehicle is sold at a junk auction for cents on the dollar—just like in San Francisco. This is particularly outrageous given that cities have plenty of other less onerous, more cost-effective options to collect on late parking ticket debt from those who can truly afford to pay it — including through wage garnishments, bank levies, or tax intercepts. The harms of debt tows, and the economic realities that make them not just cruel but fiscally irresponsible, are detailed in a report authored by our organizations: Towed into Debt: How Towing Practices in California Punish Poor People.
The Court of Appeal’s landmark decision now precludes the worst of these practices. And it coincides with legislation that further addresses debt tows statewide. Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-East San Jose) has introduced AB-1082 in the California Legislature this session to prohibit towing or immobilizing a vehicle due to unpaid parking tickets. AB 1082 also increases the number of unpaid tickets one can have before the DMV can place a registration hold. That bill has already cleared the Assembly and is making its way through the Senate. In the meantime, the Court of Appeal’s decision serves as a wake-up call to cities across California who are still operating illegal debt tow regimes.
“The Court’s ruling makes clear that robbing low-income Californians of their only means of transportation as a punishment for parking tickets is as cruel as it is unconstitutional. Stealing someone’s only means to go to work or support their family, without a warrant, doesn’t make sense for anyone. Municipalities lose money on these summary tows and vehicle auctions, working Californians lose everything, and we thrust yet more Californians into poverty and onto our streets. All over a few parking tickets. The Court of Appeal has spoken in no uncertain terms that these senseless policies violate our Constitution. We celebrate the leadership of Assemblymember Kalra in championing a bill to end these kinds of practices once and for all.” – Zal K. Shroff, Acting Legal Director, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.
“The Court’s important ruling recognizes that towing practices can have dramatically inequitable impacts on low-income drivers, often disproportionately from Black and Brown communities, including losing access to possessions, employment, and even one’s primary shelter.” – Sasha Ellis, Supervising Attorney, Bay Area Legal Aid.
“We are proud to contribute to this historic decision and grateful that LCCR, BayLegal, and the Coalition trusted us with the appeal. The Court’s ruling will improve the lives of Californians, which is the most we can hope for from legal advocacy.” – Max Rosen, Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.
“In San Francisco, thousands of households are on the brink of homelessness, where a single adverse event can thrust them out of housing. Poverty tows are one of those events, where the loss of a car, leads to a loss of the transportation needed to get to work, and suddenly they household can’t make rent. Ending this cruel practice that disparately punished impoverished households is thankfully coming to an end.” –Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director, Coalition on Homelessness