Vehicles Can’t Be Towed for Non-Payment of Parking Tickets Absent Warrant—C.A.
Opinion Says ‘Community Caretaking Exception’
Has No Applicability to Legally Parked Vehicles
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The practice in San Francisco of towing a vehicle belonging to someone with unpaid parking tickets and holding the vehicle until the tickets are paid is violative of the Fourth Amendment and California’s mirroring constitutional provision, unless a warrant has been obtained, Div. Five of the First District Court of Appeal declared Friday.
The opinion by Justice Mark B. Simons reverses a judgment in favor of the City and County of San Francisco, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and the San Francisco Police Department in an action brought by the Coalition on Homelessness. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan P. Schulman denied the group’s bid for writ of mandate, a declaratory judgment, and injunctive relief.
The defendants relied on Vehicle Code §22651. It authorizes a towing where a vehicle “is found upon a highway or public land...and it is known that the vehicle has been issued five or more notices of parking violations to which the owner or person in control of the vehicle has not responded within 21 calendar days of citation issuance… or 14 calendar days of the mailing of a notice of delinquent parking violation….”
Too, it provides that the release of a towed vehicle that’s in storage may be conditioned on presentation of “[s]atisfactory evidence that all parking penalties due for the vehicle and all other vehicles registered to the registered owner of the impounded vehicle, and all traffic violations of the registered owner, have been cleared.”
The plaintiff’s contention is that is section cannot be applied constitutionally in the absence of a warrant.
“The principal issue on appeal is whether the challenged warrantless tows are permissible under the vehicular community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. We conclude respondents have not shown that legally parked cars with unpaid parking tickets that present no threat to ‘public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic’…may be towed under that exception. In particular, we reject respondents’ argument that their interest in deterring parking violations and nonpayment of parking fines justifies warrantless tows under the vehicular community caretaking exception. Such deterrence does not justify warrantless tows of lawfully registered and lawfully parked vehicles.”
He noted that the defendants had not pointed to any case approving of a towing that was not compelled by a necessity. That, he remarked, is “instructive.”
Likened to Forfeiture
The governmental entities also argued that the towings can be justified based on a “forfeiture” rationale, reasoning that the seizures of the vehicles are tantamount to taking possession of property used in the commission of a crime.
“That argument,” Simons responded, “disregards that the foundation for the forfeiture exception is the government’s superior property interest, which is absent in the present case.”
He added that “a warrant exception applicable to any government action that is ‘sort of’ like a forfeiture process” is not grounded in established law.
The case is Coalition on Homelessness v. City and County of San Francisco, A164180.
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