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‘Poverty tows,’ common in San Francisco, ruled unconstitutional

A car is towed in the Bay Area. | Source: Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Towing cars that have accrued unpaid parking tickets without a warrant—a common practice in San Francisco—violates the California Constitution, the California Court of Appeal decided Friday.

The city implemented a practice of towing legally and safely parked cars if they had five or more unpaid parking tickets and the owner had not responded within 21 calendar days of issuance. 

After a car is towed, car owners must provide proof that they paid the outstanding tickets. In the case that the tickets go unpaid, the city would sell cars at junk auctions. 

The court found that the practice violates the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by requiring warrants, the appeal read. The city argued that their towing practice qualified for an exception from the warrant rule because the cars presented a threat to public health, an argument that the court rejected.

The Coalition on Homelessness, a nonprofit organization focused on advocacy for impoverished and houseless people, filed an appeal against the city over its towing practices, claiming that it targeted low-income individuals.

“In San Francisco, thousands of households are on the brink of homelessness, where a single adverse event can thrust them out of housing,” Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach said. “Poverty tows are one of those events, where the loss of a car leads to the loss of the transportation needed to get to work and suddenly the household can’t make rent.”

Advocates call the practice “poverty tows” because they can have a disparate impact on people who cannot afford to pay parking tickets.

The tows oftentimes cost the city more money than they bring in, according to a press release from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, one organization that pursued the appeal on behalf of the Coalition on Homelessness.

These tows are not unique to San Francisco, according to the press release. Other cities in the Bay Area, including Oakland, also engage in these practices.

Legislation banning “poverty tows” for unpaid parking tickets has cleared the California Assembly. The bill, Assembly Bill 1082, would prohibit towing or immobilizing a vehicle with outstanding tickets and would increase the number of unpaid tickets someone can have before the DMV can place a registration hold.

A spokesperson for the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office said they are “disappointed” with the decision.

“While our advocacy during oral arguments helped shape and narrow the final decision, we are disappointed by the overall decision and believe it further impedes the city’s ability to maintain safe and healthy streets,” said city attorney’s office spokesperson Jen Kwart. “We are reviewing the decision and considering any appropriate next steps.”