LCCR files Lawsuit to Stop Towing Cars for Debt Collection

On February 13, 2018, Bay Area Legal Aid and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area filed a case challenging San Francisco’s practice of towing cars – without prior notice – just because of unpaid parking tickets.

The Plaintiff in the case, James Smith, came back to the place he had parked his car on December 28, 2017 and it was gone: he thought it had been stolen. Instead, Mr. Smith, a 64-year-old lifetime San Francisco resident, found out the car had been towed for parking tickets he did not know he had accrued. Mr. Smith had recently lost his apartment, and was sleeping in his car while he searched for alternative housing. Without his car, for the first time in his life Mr. Smith had to sleep in the street, where he was beaten and robbed while sleeping in a doorway.

It is the policy in San Francisco – and in other cities throughout the state – to tow cars that accrue five or more parking tickets. Cities implement the tows without first providing notice, or giving the owner any opportunity to show that the car should not be towed. Once the car is in the tow yard, the owner cannot retrieve it until all the parking tickets are paid, along with the hefty tow and storage fees. In Mr. Smith’s case, the total bill is $7,000 – half of his annual income. Our case claims that the City’s practice violates the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.

The Superior Court granted a temporary restraining order against SFTMA to prevent Mr. Smith’s car from being sold by AutoReturn, a private towing company, before the next hearing in the case on March 7, 2018. In addition, the City has agreed to assist Mr. Smith in locating secure housing while his car remains in impound. We hope that Mr. Smith’s case pushes San Francisco to end its practice of towing vehicles solely to collect outstanding debts—especially when these tows drive people to homelessness in a city that continues to struggle to provide affordable and accessible housing.

For more media coverage on this case, visit The SF Chronicle or click here.