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.