Civil Rights Groups Challenge San Francisco’s Draconian “Poverty Tows” Before the California Court of Appeal


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Civil Rights Groups Challenge San Francisco’s Draconian “Poverty Tows” Before the California Court of Appeal

Civil rights groups urge the Court of Appeal to end the City’s practice of towing thousands of vehicles as a punishment when low-income residents can’t pay parking tickets.

San Francisco, CA — 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 filed an appeal on behalf of the Coalition on Homelessness last week urging the California Court of Appeal to declare that San Francisco’s “poverty tows” violate the California Constitution. Read last week’s filing here.

Despite years of advocacy, the City of San Francisco has refused to end its practice of towing vehicles as a punishment to force low-income residents to pay parking tickets they simply cannot afford. This debt collection program operates in the shadow of the legal system. San Francisco pulls these cars off the road even when they are safely and legally parked and without first obtaining the approval of a judge. In short, low-income Californians are afforded insufficient legal protections before the City seizes the cars they depend on to support themselves and their families. This practice clearly violates the California Constitution and Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable and warrantless seizures.

Although San Francisco announced major changes to its towing practices in response to our litigation, the City has continued to tow vehicles across San Francisco without a warrant for no apparent reason other than past parking violations, even when those vehicles are parked completely legally and in total compliance with safety regulations.

These “poverty tows” only make things more difficult for low-income residents, seizing what is often the only means of transportation and shelter for families who are struggling financially. When families still cannot afford to pay their tickets, the City sells their cars at a junk auction—effectively ensuring that they won’t be able to keep their jobs and stay afloat.

San Francisco claims that its warrantless seizure of vehicles falls under the “community caretaking doctrine”—arguing that these tows somehow promote public safety. This is a willful misreading of the California Constitution. Pulling safely and lawfully parked cars off the road just because their owners are poor has no connection to public safety. It’s cruel and patently unreasonable. This is particularly true when San Francisco intentionally skirts the judicial procedures that might protect against these poverty tows.

“Robbing San Franciscans of their only means of transportation as a punishment for parking tickets is as cruel as it is unconstitutional,” said Zal Shroff, a Senior Attorney for Racial Justice at LCCRSF. “This kind of vigilante retribution absent any judicial oversight must end. Poverty tows are just one of the many ways in which San Francisco is waging a war against its low-income Black and Brown communities.”

”This appeal will demonstrate how San Francisco’s warrantless tows of safely and lawfully parked vehicles finds no support in the ‘community caretaking’ doctrine,” Max Rosen, an attorney at Munger Tolles & Olson affirmed. “We are pleased to be working to ensure that the requirements of the California Constitution and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution are not systematically ignored by San Francisco when it seeks to collect parking ticket debt from low-income residents.”

Poverty tows are not limited to San Francisco. Our organizations have issued a report documenting that thousands of low-income Californians have lost their only form of shelter or means of transportation to work—with cities across the state permanently disrupting the lives of their poorest residents over the price of a few late parking tickets.

Municipalities already have a wide array of legal options available to them to collect debts from those who can genuinely afford to pay them (i.e. ordinary civil debt collection). The seizure of vehicles, with no judicial oversight, is simply not one of them. In fact, Los Angeles has already halted their poverty tows in direct response to litigation.

The Court of Appeal will now be in a position to decide whether California cities like San Francisco can continue to justify this cruel and improvident towing regime. We will continue to fight to protect low-income Californians from this clear violation of their constitutional rights—putting their livelihoods at risk over the price of a few parking tickets.