Guest Commentary: Unforgiving Towing Fines Deepen Inequality

Photo credit (kayasit/ iStock/ Getty Images Plus)

By Madeleine Gilson

I got the call from my client, Brianna, a few days before Christmas in 2020. She was trying to get to her doctor’s appointment in 15 minutes, but her 2006 Nissan Altima was not where she had parked it. “No notification, nothing. Just gone,” she said frantically. I sighed and shook my head. Another tow. I thought of Brianna’s approaching Christmas plans. I knew the doctor’s appointment could be rescheduled but I worried about how Brianna would make it to her family reunion. After months of pandemic isolation, it was an event she spoke about nearly every time we talked. I advised Brianna to call the towing company immediately, knowing that she would be charged $85 per day each day her Nissan sat on the lot.

As a Partners for Justice Advocate at the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office in Oakland, I work closely with low-income individuals mired in the criminal legal system. My clients come to me for help navigating court-mandated programming, retrieving property seized during their arrests, and accessing healthcare. Not infrequently, they ask me to help them retrieve their towed vehicles. Their experiences are all too common across the country, especially among communities of color. In Washington, D.C., 62 percent of all traffic violation fines were issued in neighborhoods where Black residents make up at least 70 percent of the population. Despite efforts to advocate for reduced fines and fees based on their circumstances, people like Brianna have repeatedly faced the permanent loss of their vehicles.

When Brianna arrived at the tow lot the following day prepared to pay the fine, she was told her car had a salvaged title and that she could not retrieve it until she renewed the registration, an additional charge of $405. With just a few hundred dollars in her bank account, Brianna threw up her hands. “I just turned the car in. Ya’ll can have it,” she said. But alongside Brianna’s nonchalance was a painful grappling with the magnitude of the setback. “Once your car is gone, you’ve got to learn how to get to work, what bus to take, it’s back to square A,” she explained, “It’s like now you’re back down to crawling after you were just walking.”

To provide holistic defense, I strive to never say “no” to clients’ requests for assistance. But when it comes to retrieving towed vehicles, often for exorbitant fees, I have little recourse to offer clients. In my home state of California, individuals are forced to pay average fines of $499 to retrieve a vehicle three days after a tow. Given that 40 percent of Americans are unable to afford an unexpected $400 charge, a towed vehicle is practically synonymous with the permanent loss of transportation for low-income individuals.

The impact of such a loss is significant, often entailing the loss of employment, access to education, the ability to keep medical appointments, and in some cases, their only shelter. Brianna, for instance, switched to a work-from-home job and began taking Ubers for transportation to her daughter’s medical appointments. When that became untenable, she started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to purchase a new car.

There is no viable pathway for the poor to retrieve their towed vehicles in most cities—a policy lapse that leads people like Brianna to fall deeper into poverty. However, there are some examples cities can adopt to reform their systems.

San Francisco has a fee-waiver program that enables low-income and homeless individuals to retrieve their vehicles for free or at a reduced price. Between July 2020 and March 2021, 7,435 low-income SF residents were able to retrieve their towed vehicles using a waiver, collectively saving $1.1 million for car owners. U.S. cities like Oakland and D.C. should offer similar reprieves to their residents, while also considering broader and more creative solutions to costly tows. For example, a Philadelphia vehicle relocation program authorizes towing companies to move cars blocking traffic to legal parking spaces nearby, saving the city and residents the cost of transport to and storage at a tow yard.

Those hit hardest by the pandemic are struggling to stabilize after a difficult year. Now more than ever, these communities need relief from punitive fines and fees. When my next client calls to tell me about a towed vehicle, I don’t want to respond with a defeated sigh on the other end of the line. I want to have a solution. “Don’t worry. We can get the fines reduced,” I’d say, before presenting a plan to retrieve their vehicle and the many liberties it entails.

Madeleine Gilson is an Advocate with Partners for Justice, a nonprofit that helps clients navigate the criminal legal system.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

Related posts


  1. Ron Oertel

    Their experiences are all too common across the country, especially among communities of color. 

    What I’d suggest is to eliminate all laws which do not result in a proportionately equal outcome, compared to the broader population.

    If you disagree, you’re supporting systemic racism.

    And not just limited to skin color, but also including gender, age group, etc.


  2. Alan Miller

    Why was her car towed?

    Kinda like yesterday, asking for the other side, or prelude, of the issue . . .

    I mean, is there a lack of parking in her neighborhood forcing her to park in illegal zones?  Does she flaunt parking laws?

    It’s OK though, as our cities densify and gentrify thanks to ‘champions’ like Scott ‘Photo Bomb’ Weiner, we’ll soon have less places to park thanks to ‘parking minimums’ turned into ‘parking maximums’.  Will those parking laws hurt the lower-income, inner-city dweller or the rich person with a private, indoor garage?  You decide!  Seems to me MORE places to park in the cities would help this problem:  parking #gasp!# minimums  😐

    And of course the article says the obligatory ” . . . especially among people of color”.   I’ve had friends who had their vehicles towed and wracked up hundreds of dollars in fines — and some of them were white.

    I have long been against the towing scam and the often too-cozy relationship between towing companies and law enforcement, especially in big cities and remote towns.  And y’know what, it hurts everyone.  And y’know what, on average, ‘people of color’ have less money than ‘white’ people.  Can we just agree on that, and then work on the issues (including wealth disparities as one of those issues), so every modern article in the nation that can possibly have disparity slipped-in isn’t about race?  Newsflash:  if the center of your universe is racial disparity, to the same degree that a devote Catholic may center their political universe on abortion being the murdering of babies, then everything is going to be about race.  But is that helpful in working towards greater equity?  Second newsflash:  there will always be inequity, and there will always be abortions; thus the complete elimination of each leads to total ‘job security’ among intense activists.

    I was watching a clip on the travel timeline of the missing woman from New York / Florida.  An “MBG” as has she is now termed by some online (a ‘Missing Blonde Girl’).  [And yes, I think it’s a huge societal issue that missing white people –> missing blonde people –> missing women –> missing good-looking white blonde women garner so much more attention than missing people of color.  There’s a societal sickness there that needs a national head shrink . . . ]   In the middle of this rather long documentary, there is what can only be called a ‘cutaway’ on the timeline, similar to what they do on “Family Guy”.  They cut to the fancy interior of the van and the narrator says something along the lines of, ‘many people of color cannot afford to take trips like this.  In the last year, wages of black and brown people decreased by 25%’ — and then they go back to the timeline.  Oddly, I just heard a couple of white people talking about how they never had the time nor money to take a trip like this).

    Point is, we all know there is a wealth disparity and many other disparities.  Progressive media inserting this into every story – even to the point of ‘cutaways’ – is divisive, obsessive and ineffective (in my view).  Can’t there be some ‘human’ stories, and some ‘race’ stories, without every story necessarily being a race story?   What is the end game, run over the Earth with a massive steamroller, take the paste and blend it into a homogeneous goo?  Everything and everyone would be equal.  And very, very dead.

    1. Mark Yelton

      Let’s not overlook the ‘police subsidy’ the little contrabution that many police departments get their cut right off the top and some like the Fortuna police department slap an immediate 200$ charge for the luxury of impounding your car I try to look at it like their saving me gas as well as wear and tear on my vehicle. No doubt there is some logic since this isn’t the only department that does this yet so many departments wonder why low income citizens feel oppressed.

      1. Keith Olsen

         No doubt there is some logic since this isn’t the only department that does this yet so many departments wonder why low income citizens feel oppressed.

        Simple solution, don’t put yourself in a position where your car gets towed.

        1. David Greenwald

          Police use firing squads to address illegally parked cars. Keith’s response: “Simple solution, don’t put yourself in a position where your car gets towed.” Do let’s justify disproportionate responses by the police.

        2. Keith Olsen

          Police use firing squads to address illegally parked cars. 

          David’s way overreaction.

          Do let’s justify disproportionate responses by the police.

          Are you trying to say disproportionate by city or disproportionate by race?

          1. David Greenwald

            Just illustrating the absurdity of downplaying an injustice just because someone may have in fact made a mistake. A mistake does not relieve the state of its duty to do justice.

        3. Keith Olsen

           A mistake does not relieve the state of its duty to do justice.

          A mistake does not relieve the person making the mistake of their responsibility for their mistake.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for