Federal Court Calls San Francisco Towing Practices into Question

For Immediate Release
News from LCCR – SF Bay Area and Bay Area Legal Aid
October 10, 2018
Contact: Taylor Brady, TBrady@baylegal.org, (510) 250-5234; Matt Kovac, mkovac@lccr.com, (415) 510-9601
San Francisco Towing Practices Called into Question by New Federal Court Ruling
City towed and impounded homeless man’s car for unpaid parking tickets; Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Bay Area Legal Aid and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP claim policy violates 4th Amendment guarantee against unreasonable seizure
SAN FRANCISCO – Today, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued a preliminary injunction in the case of Smith v. Reiskin. The court found “serious questions” about the constitutionality of towing a car for parking tickets the owner cannot afford to pay, and ordered immediate return of Plaintiff Sean Kayode’s car.
“This is a crucial victory, which will allow Mr. Kayode to return to work as a delivery driver,” said Elisa Della-Piana, LCCR Legal Director. “We hope this opinion will induce the City to reconsider its towing policy and work with us to develop one that is constitutional and does not punish people for being poor.”
The case has significant financial and Constitutional implications not only for Mr. Kayode, but for thousands of low-income San Francisco residents, who face exceptional financial burdens from tow and impound fees stemming from the City’s practice of towing vehicles without warrant or hearing to collect on unpaid parking tickets.
“This case is vitally important as a safeguard against the erosion of core Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable seizures,” said Rebekah Evenson, Director of Litigation at Bay Area Legal Aid. “The preliminary injunction on behalf of Mr. Kayode also signals a real possibility of ending a practice that has disproportionately and unfairly impacted the poorest and most vulnerable residents of San Francisco, adding to the cost and risk of poverty at a time when punitive debt, displacement, and homelessness have already reached crisis proportions.”
The court’s opinion indicates a clear understanding of the stakes for Mr. Kayode:
“The record demonstrates that, while living in a temporary shelter to escape homelessness Mr. Kayode worked delivering food and received 30 parking citations in the ten months preceding the tow. Although Mr. Kayode attempted to resolve some of the outstanding citations, paying what he could afford to at the time and removing himself from the City’s “booting” list, he was unable to pay the remaining tickets. On March 5, 2018, with the battery dead and the car parked nearby the homeless shelter where Mr. Kayode was staying, the car received another citation for being illegally parked during street cleaning hours. The car was then towed. The total sum Mr. Kayode would need to pay to recover his car from impound, including the amount payable for outstanding parking citations and the fees and charges related to the towing and storage of the car is $11,116.75, significantly more than the value of the car, and well in excess of a sum that Plaintiff can afford.”
The court concluded that there are “serious questions” regarding Mr. Kayode’s constitutional claim, namely whether the City “can justify the seizure and retention of a vehicle if its owner cannot afford the parking tickets levied upon the vehicle solely on the basis  … that seizure is reasonable in an effort to secure repayment of debt owed.”
“The Court’s ruling is a big win – for Mr. Kayode and for the many other low-income San Franciscans who have been irreparably impacted by the City’s current policy,” said Chris Rheinheimer, counsel with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP. “We are thrilled that Mr. Kayode will be able to return to work, and we are optimistic that going forward the City will work with us to develop a new policy that is neither unconstitutional nor unfair to its most vulnerable residents.”
Read the Order for Preliminary Injunction here.