Opinion: California cities lose money, harm citizens with ‘poverty tows’

Opinion: California cities lose money, harm citizens with ‘poverty tows’

In California, if you don’t have enough money to pay for parking tickets, the government may take your car.

Every year, tens of thousands of low-income Californians lose their vehicles simply because they cannot afford to pay for parking tickets. City governments tow the cars not because they are currently parked illegally but because their owners haven’t paid past parking fines. The vehicles then run up storage fees at towing facilities — fees that low-income vehicle owners also cannot pay.

As a result, the cars are auctioned off. The outcome is that our cities are not only punishing people for being poor, but also taking away their lifeline for climbing out of poverty.

That is not the way California’s cities should be treating their most economically vulnerable residents. Losing a car can cost individuals their job, their medical care, their childcare and even their personal safety.

Many cities require vehicle owners to pay all their parking ticket debt, snowballing late fees and towing fees before allowing them to retrieve their impounded vehicle from the tow yard. But people who already couldn’t afford to pay their original parking tickets aren’t going to be able to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in additional charges. In many cases, getting their car back from the tow yard would cost more than the car is worth.

As a result, their vehicles are sold out from under them at sham auctions for cents on the dollar — permanently depriving people of their access to transportation and digging them into an even deeper economic hole.

Absurdly, so-called poverty tows don’t even provide revenue to the cities that implement them. For example, a recent audit of San Diego’s towing practices found that the average sale price of a vehicle towed for unpaid parking tickets was $526. But towing and storage fees alone averaged $1,174. So, on average, the city of San Diego loses money each time it tows a legally parked car for unpaid tickets.

For 2023, the audit estimated that the city will lose over $300,000 on auction sales alone.

Towing cars this way violates the constitutions of both the United States and California. Just last month, a California appellate court ruled that towing legally parked cars solely because the owners have unpaid parking tickets is not only unrelated to public safety but also violates the California Constitution and the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable seizures.

Still, cities continue to seize people’s cars.

This lose-lose practice that benefits neither cities nor residents, while allowing tow yards to pocket excessive storage fees, needs to end.

Fortunately, a solution is within reach. Assembly Bill 1082, introduced by Assemblymember Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, would prohibit towing or immobilizing a vehicle solely because of unpaid parking tickets. It would also increase the number of tickets someone can receive before a hold is placed on their registration, which would help drivers keep their vehicles on the road. In addition, the bill would establish fair and reasonable payment plans so people can pay off their debt while retaining their car, ensuring that their economic lives are not upended.

If it passes, AB 1082 will end a practice that should have never been allowed in the first place, providing a measure of justice and relief to some of the state’s most financially fragile residents. And it will be further evidence that trying to fund local government on the backs of the poor is a fool’s errand.

Ted Mermin is the executive director of the Center for Consumer Law and Economic Justice at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He previously served as a deputy attorney general of California. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.