On July 21, 2023, the California Court of Appeal for the First District, in Coalition on Homelessness v. City and County of San Francisco, 93 Cal.App.5th 928 (2023), held that San Francisco cannot tow safely and lawfully parked vehicles, without a warrant, solely because of unpaid parking tickets.
California Vehicle Code Section 22651(i)(1) permits tows for unpaid parking citations. In Coalition on Homelessness, the plaintiff challenged San Francisco’s policy of towing vehicles pursuant to this State law, without a warrant, as a Fourth Amendment violation. The Court of Appeal ruled in the plaintiff’s favor, holding that the Fourth Amendment exception for “community caretaking” did not apply to the city’s approach and this vehicle code provision.
The Fourth Amendment and car towing
The Fourth Amendment generally requires a warrant before the government seizes property—including the towing of a vehicle. In its defense, the city relied on the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, which recognizes the government’s need to address safety and nuisance concerns that may arise from damaged or abandoned vehicles. But the Court of Appeal concluded that this exception does not apply where the towing involves vehicles that, due to their location, do not present any threat to public health and safety. In other words, neither San Francisco nor any other California jurisdiction can tow vehicles—absent a warrant—only because the owners failed to pay overdue parking tickets.
The Court of Appeal noted that the challenged tows did not involve vehicles that were illegally parked, created a hazard to other drivers or an obstacle to the flow of traffic, or were a target for vandalism or theft. As such, the Court of Appeal did not disturb the ability to perform the warrantless tows of vehicles under those circumstances.
Local policies regarding persons experiencing homelessness
Notably, San Francisco’s policies prohibited towing if the parking enforcement officer determined with reasonable confidence that the vehicle was being used as shelter. In such a circumstance, the city would not “boot” or tow the vehicle unless the vehicle was parked in a tow-away zone, in a place that created a hazard, or in similar circumstances. Nonetheless, this exception did not alter the Court of Appeal’s conclusion.
Given the Ninth Circuit decision in Martin v. City of Boise, 902 F.3d 1031 (9th Cir. 2018) and subsequent cases, local governments should be mindful of the potential overlap in policies regarding vehicle towing and policies regarding the unhoused. While not explicitly before the Court of Appeal in Coalition on Homelessness, any court reviewing vehicle-related regulations is likely to have these considerations in mind.
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