Preying on the Poor: California’s Towing Practices Hurt Everyone

Emily Garcia

Everyone loses in California’s vehicle towing game. The state of California, it’s taxpayers and the people as a whole all lose massive amounts of money, time and -for those most vulnerable- their vehicles. For many, a vehicle is not only a means of transportation but also a shelter. In a climate where housing is impossible to afford and sustain, people are using their vehicles as shelter. Even for those with homes, a tow can leave them without a car to get to work, increasing the risk of unemployment and can even have an impact on how much folks earn. For families, a vehicle is essential to children’s education, as well as access to proper healthcare. The permanent loss of a car for middle class and low income folks can tip them over the edge into homelessness and poverty. Towing is perceived as a public safety service, but has serious consequences for Californian’s quality of life and even access to fundamental human needs.

California’s towing policies focus on three primary offenses: tows for unpaid parking tickets, tows for unpaid or overdue registration, and tows for vehicles left unattended for 72 hours. While these offenses and the proper path to reclaiming one’s vehicle may seems straightforward, there are many bureaucratic obstacles that make it nearly impossible for folks to reclaim their cars.

A report by a coalition of legal organizations across California, outlining California’s harmful towing practices. “Towed into Debt: How Towing Practices in California Punish the Poor”, illustrates the numbers an average tow costs for the owner. The typical cost to reclaim a vehicle is around $800. However, if the car was towed for tickets, the owner must pay for the $800 fee along with all unpaid tickets, and addition fees for the cost of storage.

When a car is towed for expired registration they must pay the typical frees, along with  all registration fees and penalties, and any outstanding traffic and parking tickets. The owner must then pay the towing and storage fees to retrieve and reclaim their vehicle. In instances where a car is parked in one place for more than 72 hours as a result of hospitalization, arrest or  other type of emergency, it can be especially difficult to reclaim a car. Once a person in this position finds their car is gone, towing and storage prices may have already begun compounding build as each day passes.

Towing for these offenses feed into a cycle that preys on low-income folks. When a person gets a ticket and cannot pay, the towed vehicle can end up with a hold on its registration at the DMV. The owner cannot register the vehicle until all parking tickets and registration fees are paid. If they fail to pay these, more parking tickets can be collected for failure to display valid registration fees. As a person accumulates debt, the smallest offense (such as an expired parking meter, misread parking sign or street cleaning) can fuel this vicious cycle of debt and lead to permanent loss of vehicle.

In addition to this cyclical accumulation of debt for both the state and people, this report found that many of these practices are unconstitutional. The Fourth Amendment protects the rights of individual’s property. Under this law, government bodies must have a warrant seize vehicles for debt collection. This is only applicable when it affects the flow of traffic or protects property from theft or vandalism. However these top three violations do not break the law nor affect the flow of traffic.

The high cost of these tows can have a financial shock that lasts for at least six months. While the costs might be hefty for Californians, the state loses large sums of money when they tow for poverty-related reasons. When the state tows, the car is often more likely to be sold at lien sales than it is to be claimed and in the midst of it all, tow companies lose thousands of dollars. Half of all vehicles that San Francisco tows were sold in lien sales, 55% of which collected for lack of registration.

These towing practices prove to be counterproductive as they often deprive people of their employment, guaranteeing a loss of money for the state. Studies within the report show that the higher the cost that the state asks in fees, the less likely the state will ever see any money. However, when the state adjusts it fees according to an individual’s financial capabilities, they are more likely to collect.

Those most disproportionately affected are unhoused folks, immigrants and also people of color. Towing is directly linked to a long history of punishing the poor in the United States. East Bay Express reported a towing crisis in Oakland, where 26,000 towns affected majority Latinx and Black communities. In San Francisco, MTA officers are dispatched to locations of complaints concerning the presence of homeless folks. Studies have also revealed a significant racial bias in traffic stops, that lead to towing.

While many might think the answer might be public transportation, many Californians (especially those not living in major city centers) that transportation is time-consuming, unreliable and expensive. People of color  rely heavily on public transportation to go about their daily lives. But, lack of investment in transportation fuels racial inequality, economic opportunity and racial segregation within a city. This makes car ownership crucial to economic well-being.

Towing a vehicle is counterproductive on many ends, and creates unnecessary debt for vehicle owners and the state. These practices disproportionately affect working class folks, all while those with money can afford to break parking laws time and time again (as long as they can pay their ticket). These policies make it near impossible to reclaim their vehicles, and cause detrimental setbacks to the state of someone’s financial, health and mental well being.

However, three proposals moving through the California legislature could remedy some of these problems. Assemblymember David Chiu — with support from the American Civil Liberties Union of California and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in the Bay Area — is sponsoring Assembly Bill 516, which would eliminated poverty-related tows for vehicles with more than five unpaid parking tickets. Also, Marc Berman’s AB 302 would require community colleges to grant overnight parking access to enrolled students, while Autumn Burke’s AB 891 would mandate California cities with populations over 330,000 people to collaborate with nonprofits in establishing safe parking programs for vehicle-dwelling persons and families by June 1, 2022.