Homeless Advocates, Legal Organizations File Against City of San Francisco in Suit to End Unconstitutional Towing Practices


June 9, 2021 

Media Contact

Sam Lew, 415-272-8022, slew@lccrsf.org  

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area  


Coalition on Homelessness Files Against SFMTA and SFPD in Suit to End Unconstitutional Towing Practices  

Seizure of vehicles for unpaid parking tickets violates constitutional rights and targets unhoused San Franciscans living in their vehicles 

SAN FRANCISCO — The Coalition on Homelessness filed a Motion for Writ of Mandate in its lawsuit against the City and County of San Francisco, the SFMTA, and the SFPD. Through this action, the Coalition on Homelessness hopes to finally end the City’s unconstitutional policy and practice of towing safely parked vehicles solely because their owners have accrued five or more unpaid parking tickets. This towing practice violates the Fourth Amendment by unlawfully seizing vehicles without a warrant and violates due process by failing to provide adequate notice and opportunity to be heard.

These tows are used as the City’s form of debt-collection for unpaid tickets, disproportionately impact the City’s low-income and homeless population, and are deeply harmful — with the average cost to retrieve a vehicle towed for debt collection purposes at nearly $1,500, far more than most low-income and unhoused San Franciscans can pay.

The Coalition on Homelessness is represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF), Bay Area Legal Aid, and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP. 

San Francisco tows vehicles with five or more unpaid parking tickets, seizing  2000-4000 vehicles each year and targeting the City’s most vulnerable residents. The City most frequently tows vehicles for unpaid parking tickets in the neighborhoods that house the highest percentage of Black individuals and people of color in the City: the Bayview-Hunter’s Point, SOMA, and the Tenderloin. 

“SFMTA’s towing practices clearly violate the Fourth Amendment. There is  no recognized ground on which SFMTA could constitutionally seize a vehicle for unpaid parking tickets without obtaining a warrant,” said Elisa Della-Piana, Legal Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “We ask that the Court prohibit these unlawful vehicle seizures immediately.”  

Towing for unpaid parking citations results in dire consequences for thousands of low-income San Franciscans. Many cannot afford to pay the astronomical fees charged to retrieve their vehicle after a tow and, as a result, permanently lose their vehicle, means of employment, and in the worst-case scenarios, their homes. 

“More than 1,800 individuals – overwhelmingly Black and brown San Franciscans— live in their vehicles,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “SFMTA’s towing practices are not only illegal, but they are also used to target unhoused individuals who live in their vehicles. No one should be towed for not being able to afford parking tickets, especially when their car is their home.”  

While the SFMTA provided relief to struggling San Franciscans by placing a moratorium on towing for unpaid parking citations during the pandemic, the agency announced they would resume debt collection tows on June 21.  

“Notwithstanding San Francisco’s often touted progressive values, we found that City officials target vehicles associated with homeless encampments,” said Novella Coleman, Director of Litigation at Bay Area Legal Aid.  “What we really need is a sincere and rigorous attempt to address the affordable housing crisis instead of City officials clinging to ineffective strategies that maintain the status quo.” 

View the court documents here