California Is Pushing People Deeper into Poverty by Towing Their Cars for Non-Safety Reasons

By Maya Ingram

Living in California is already expensive enough for working families – paying rent, paying for childcare, putting food on the table, etc. – without also having to pay to retrieve a towed car. But every year, California local governments push countless families that are struggling to make ends meet deeper into poverty by towing their legally parked cars. Hundreds of thousands of cars are towed each year for non-safety reasons and to collect minor debts.

For example, when someone can’t afford to pay five or more parking tickets, cities tow their car. When someone’s car registration is past due, cities tow their car. And when someone cannot afford a private parking garage and legally parks their car in the same spot for 72 hours? Yes, you guessed it: their car gets towed.

Cars are often towed without first giving owners notice and post-tow hearings offer shamefully inadequate due process protections. As a result, working families often lose their cars, leading to job loss, more debt, credit score dings, increased instability, and even homelessness.

That’s why the ACLU of California is sponsoring AB 516, a bill introduced by Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco) to ensure California stops punishing poor people for being poor by towing their cars for non-safety reasons. Towing cars should be reserved for improving public safety and traffic flow, not punishing and plunging people into insurmountable debt. It’s important to note that AB 516 will still let cities tow abandoned and inoperable vehicles.

California’s towing practices are fundamentally unjust and an ineffective debt and revenue-collection tool that disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities. A 2018 review of 26,000 tows revealed that the Oakland Police Department towed cars more often from East Oakland, which is a predominantly Black and brown neighborhood, than from other neighborhoods. Reporting has shown significant racial bias in traffic stops by law enforcement agencies in various parts of the state, many of which can lead to the towing of vehicles.

Right now, cities and counties across California typically require owners to pay at least $500 to retrieve their car from the tow yard. If the car was towed because the owner couldn’t afford to pay tickets or fees, the owner must first pay these off, plus any late fees, and often a release fee before they can even pay the tow yard’s daily escalating storage fees.

We’re talking about charging someone, who couldn’t afford to pay parking tickets or registration fees to begin with, thousands of dollars in additional fees just to get their car back so they can continue working, paying rent, and providing for their families.

Many people simply can’t afford to retrieve their car. In fact, a Federal Reserve study found that 46% of people in this country can’t afford to pay $400 for an emergency expense without first selling something or borrowing money.

So unpaid tickets and registration fees remain unpaid, tow yards don’t recoup the costs of storing people’s cars, and cities have forced their residents to lose a necessary lifeline to live and work in the community.

California should do everything to make it easier – not harder – for working families to succeed.

Maya is a legislative attorney at the ACLU of California Center for Advocacy & Policy.


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26 Comments

  1. Alan Miller

    The sweetheart relationship between some City governments and their towing companies is pretty disgusting, and my hope is this would help end it.  While I’ve not seen it in Davis, I have seen it play out with friends in Nevada and San Francisco, and the Oakland example wouldn’t surprise me at all.  I support this if it is as stated.

  2. Ron Oertel

    That’s why the ACLU of California is sponsoring AB 516, a bill introduced by Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco) to ensure California stops punishing poor people for being poor by towing their cars for non-safety reasons

    There are reasons for parking laws, other than traffic safety.  No one has an inherent right to ignore these laws, based upon their economic status.

    For example, when someone can’t afford to pay five or more parking tickets, cities tow their car. 

    I guess that some people ignore “hints”. Honestly, would they expect a different result?

    We’re talking about charging someone, who couldn’t afford to pay parking tickets or registration fees to begin with, thousands of dollars in additional fees just to get their car back so they can continue working, paying rent, and providing for their families.

    Presumably, a reason for public transportation. The article mentions Oakland – do they not have bus service, as well as BART? (With BART being a more limited option, for most.)

     

    1. Ron Oertel

      That’s why the ACLU of California is sponsoring AB 516, a bill introduced by Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco) to ensure California stops punishing poor people for being poor by towing their cars for non-safety reasons. 

      And actually, how might this work in places like San Francisco, or Davis?  Poor people are allowed to ignore parking regulations?  The police being required to check into economic status, of the “victim”?

      “Parking problem solved”, in downtown Davis? 😉

      Or, is it only in poorer cities and neighborhoods that “anything goes”, as a result of this proposal?

      Is there any reasonable thought process going on, with this proposal? Really – it’s an issue that the ACLU feels compelled to be involved in? The “right” to park one’s car wherever they damn well please, because they’re “poor”?

  3. Alan Miller

    The “right” to park one’s car wherever they damn well please, because they’re “poor”?

    I believe there is a difference between economic incentives and judicial punishment — and having ones car towed from a legal spot to deal with unpaid parking fines.  I don’t wish to encourage lawlessness, but there is a ‘breaking point spiral’ that can occur when someone is just getting by, and suddenly their car is taken away.  One can lose their job if one day they can’t get to work due to no car.  I’m a huge believer in public transit, but as our society and cities are currently structured, it doesn’t work for many people or situations.

    So I support this as written, but honestly I used to support the ACLU, but they have become so far-left-wing political I don’t trust their releases anymore — so I say this with caution that this as presented isn’t the whole story about the bill.  I’d like to hear the other side, but of course the Vanguard doesn’t do that, so that would require digging with a Google shovel.

    Presumably, a reason for public transportation. The article mentions Oakland – do they not have bus service, as well as BART?

    While I do support the bill as it is presented, I do not support free use of public transit by scofflaws.  Virtually every time I ride BART I see people simply pushing through the turnstiles, diverting around using the elevators, or going through the emergency gates.  It is rampant, and BART doesn’t or can’t prevent it.  It has become a given, a part of the lifestyle, free public transit because we can.  This needs to stop, but it’s so much a part of life there is huge push-back against BART attempts to improve gate security.

    1. Ron Oertel

      I believe there is a difference between economic incentives and judicial punishment — and having ones car towed from a legal spot to deal with unpaid parking fines. 

      It is “punishment”, as are tickets (apparently five of them), before a car is towed.  Not sure how “economic incentives” could be used to encourage drivers to park their cars legally.  (Subsidized parking lots?)

      Also not sure if the cars are (in fact) parked legally, when they’re ultimately towed.

      “Somehow”, I was able to (pretty much) avoid parking tickets, despite having a car in the same area where others were not so “fortunate”. I know people who are simply a lot more careless about it.

      I don’t wish to encourage lawlessness, but there is a ‘breaking point spiral’ that can occur when someone is just getting by, and suddenly their car is taken away. 

      Probably more related to a larger issue regarding “economic inequality”, vs. looking the other way when parking ordinances are broken.

      1. Ron Oertel

        I know people who are simply a lot more careless about it.

        One of whom has now been rendered “carless”, under circumstances similar to those in the article.  Frankly, that person is better-off without it, at this point.

  4. Ron Oertel

    I suspect that parking challenges are a primary reason that many young people in highly urbanized areas don’t have cars, these days.

    Unfortunately, services such as Uber and Lyft are probably MORE environmentally-unfriendly, since they have to travel without passengers at times.

  5. Alan Miller

    Unfortunately, services such as Uber and Lyft are probably MORE environmentally-unfriendly, since they have to travel without passengers at times.

    Really depends on if they are replacing car, bicycle, or bus trips.  What probably is more environmentally friendly are the shared versions such as Uber Pool, or Lyft ???, which I use when I’m not super pushed for time.

  6. Ron Oertel

    Alan:  “I believe there is a difference between economic incentives and judicial punishment . . .”

    Alan:  “While I do support the bill as it is presented, I do not support free use of public transit by scofflaws.” 

    Honest question – how about free public transit for “non” scofflaws? (Some employers provide subsidies to encourage the use of public transit at little or no cost to their employees, which makes it too good of a deal to pass up – especially when considering parking costs.) I believe that most state agencies do this, for example.

    Wondering if UCD subsidizes the cost of Yolobus service for its employees, to campus. (And if not, why not – as other public employers do.)

     

    1. David Greenwald

      The issue here is that you have government basically using fines and fees to fund public safety and doing so on the backs of the people least able to afford it and most reliant on the use of their transportation to get to work.  Focusing on public transit completely whitewashes this problem.

      1. Ron Oertel

        How is the government using “fines and fees to fund public safety”? And, what does that have to do with providing subsidized public transit, for workers? (As already occurs, to some degree.)

        How do you know whether or not a particular group is “most reliant” upon private automobiles to get to work (e.g., in an area already well-served by public transportation)?

        How would you ensure that parking regulations are adhered to, if there’s no consequences for ignoring them?  Also, are you advocating that special privileges in this regard are provided to “poor” people?

        1. Ron Oertel

          David:  Aren’t you (also) the same guy who advocates for the elimination (or drastic reduction) of developer-provided parking spaces?  Thereby ensuring that this problem is made worse for some? (Not to mention increased challenges for an entire neighborhood, as well.)

        2. David Greenwald

          You’re missing the point here.  These fines and fees are being imposed on people who can’t afford them.  I attended a conference on this in New York in March.  People end up going into debt, they end up bankrupt, they end up losing their cars and their licenses in some states, and then they end up not being able to make it to work in many cases.  You’re trying to wrap this issue into land use and transportation decision when this is really strictly a social justice and equity issue.

        3. Ron Oertel

          I’ve lived in one of the most challenging locales for parking in this country, and rarely got parking tickets.  (No – I didn’t have a garage.)

          Might this be a personal responsibility issue, to a large degree?

          I’m not “trying” to wrap this into a land use issue.  It already is one, when parking minimums are eliminated.

          Again, I ask what motivation there is to adhere to parking regulations, if there are no consequences to ignoring them. Is allowing certain groups to ignore regulations and laws part of “social equity”?

          And again, how do you know whether or not public transit would work, in an area already well-served by it? Could it be that some folks simply don’t want to avail themselves of it, especially if they can park wherever they want without consequences?

           

          1. David Greenwald

            There are two different issues here.

            One is getting the tickets. The other is about enforcement of the tickets.

            Is there personal responsibility here – absolutely. But the consequence needs to be proportionate to the crime. And if you end up ruining people in trying to enforce minor violations of the law, you do no one any favors. Some of the research on this stuff is astonishing.

        4. Ron Oertel

          I realize that it’s outrageously expensive for anyone to ignore parking regulations.  It feels like robbery.

          Honestly – what do you propose?  Reduced fees for poor people?  (Who are already ignoring the first five tickets they received?)

          What incentive would they have to take responsibility for their decisions?

          And again, how can one advocate for elimination of parking minimums for new developments, while also claiming that there’s a need for parking?

          1. Don Shor

            Reduced fees for poor people?

            That’s actually a simple solution. A right to appeal for reduced, not eliminated, fines. There should be some sanction for breaking the law, but when the fines are steep it ends up being a highly regressive form of taxation of the poor.

        5. David Greenwald

          Here’s a series that Melissa Sanchez did in Pro Publica: https://www.propublica.org/series/driven-into-debt

          Basically it tracks how these fees which provide cash for the city of Chicago, create a huge burden on working poor who can’t afford the initial fees and then generates more fines and fees and in some cases financially ruins people for life.

          What do I suggest, read the article that this is posted under, AB 516 is start, California a few years ago stopped taking away licenses for inability to pay, and there are some other reforms as well.

  7. Ron Oertel

    Me:  “Reduced fees for poor people”?

    Don:   “That is actually a simple solution.”

    Maybe so, but I’m not seeing any incentive to pay them at all.  These are apparently people who don’t even pay their very first ticket, nor are they making any changes to avoid more.  Nor am I seeing any incentive to change behavior, use public transit, etc.

    If their car isn’t ultimately towed, how would they ever be held responsible (in any way)?

    1. David Greenwald

      In the case of some – the reason they don’t pay the ticket is they can’t afford it. The response from the system is then to exponentially increase the fines and fees. But there is another problem here – the fines and fees are set not because of any evidence-based reason but rather because that is what the system needs in order to run. So they are running their system off people who can’t afford to pay into it.

      1. Ron Oertel

        ” . . . but rather because that is what the system needs in order to run.”

        So basically, you’re advocating that society subsidizes the use of private automobiles for poor people.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Again, the underlying claim is that there’s no “legal” place to park.

        And those advocating for elimination of parking minimums will make the situation worse, for both existing residents of a neighborhood, as well as new ones. Which will also impact those who are “poor”.

        1. Ron Oertel

          So, you’re stating that folks are ignoring the plethora of free, legal spaces, in order to park in a spot that’s illegal.

          And, why not, if there’s no effective enforcement, anyway.

          I would “agree” that there’s no need for developers to offset their impacts, under such a situation. 😉

          But, it will certainly be a mess. (By the way, will well-off people also be able to ignore parking regulations, under such a scenario?)

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