Chiu bill would prevent cities from towing vehicles for nonpayment of parking tickets, registration

Cities would no longer be allowed to tow vehicles with multiple unpaid parking tickets or overdue vehicle registration fees or that haven’t moved in more than three days under legislation introduced by Assemblymember David Chiu Monday.

Chiu, D-San Francisco, introduced Assembly Bill 516 with the intention of preventing cars from being towed in cases where it does not serve any public safety purpose and disproportionately impacts low-income people.

The bill would prohibit poverty-related tows wherein the owner has received five or more outstanding parking tickets, were unregistered for more than six months or if the vehicle had violated the 72-hour parking restriction.

“Towing can mean the permanent loss of your car,” said Chiu. “We are not talking about an expensive inconvenience. These poverty-related tows take away jobs, livelihoods and homes.”

The bill pulls its language and data from a recently released report on the impacts of towing practices on low-income populations statewide.

San Francisco tows about 42,000 vehicles annually and spends $25 million operating a towing program, according to the report. Furthermore, 90 percent of all vehicles towed are returned to the owners. However, vehicles towed for ‘poverty-related’ reasons, which only make up 10 percent of all towed vehicles, are four times as likely to end up being sold by the City through a lien sale.

Which, according to the report, means everyone is losing money.

Data shows that the average cost of towing, storing and selling a vehicle through an auction is $2,594. However according to the report, the average value of a car sold through these auctions covers less than a third of the total cost of all the fees at an average auction sale price of $700.

State laws prioritize contracted towing companies when it comes to recovering their tow and storage fees, and do not guarantee that public agencies receive any portion of the revenue from auction sales, making recovery of costs for cities unlikely, according to the report.

“Poverty-related tows do not work for anyone. Low income people lose, tow yards lose, local governments lose,” said Chiu.

Furthermore, tows that result in car auction sales hurt the car owner’s ability to pay the debt by taking away their car, he said.

Mary Lovelace, an interior designer in San Francisco who needs a vehicle for her work, struggled to pay off parking tickets that she received after she was laid off from her job. As a result the city booted and then towed her car. Lovelace eventually needed $1,800 to retrieve her car, but because she could not raise the funds the tow yard sold her car at auction and filed a lien against her, damaging her credit.

“They sold it at auction for far less than what the car was worth, and far less than what the tickets were worth. I no longer had a car and no way of fixing it,” said Lovelace. “But they still wanted to be paid.”

Lovelace declared bankruptcy, remains unemployed and is still without a car, which she needs to do her job.

If the bill passes, over two dozen laws remain in place that local governments can use to tow a vehicle.

Chiu noted that there are other enforcement mechanisms in place to compel Californians to pay parking tickets and registration fees, such as intercepted tax refunds, bank levies, civil judgments, suspending a person’s license and wage garnishment.

“Towing is an unnecessarily harmful way for local governments to enforce non-safety related laws,” said Mike Herald, director of policy advocacy of Western Center on Law and Poverty. “It is the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack an egg.”

Additionally, vehicles that violate the 72-hour rule will still be eligible to receive a parking ticket for every 72-hour violation and will still be subjected to the City’s abandoned vehicle code.

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