COURT HOLDS SUCH TOWS WITHOUT A WARRANT ARE AN ILLEGAL SEIZURE UNDER CALIFORNIA AND UNITED STATES CONSTITUTIONS
On July 21, 2023, in Coalition on Homelessness v. City and County of San Francisco, the California First District Court of Appeal found that San Francisco’s policy of towing safely and lawfully parked vehicles without a warrant based solely on the accrual of unpaid parking tickets did not fall within the “vehicular community caretaking exception,” and such tows, without a warrant, were therefore unreasonable seizures within the meaning of article I, section 13 of the California Constitution and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The court rejected the City’s argument that warrantless towing of parked vehicles with accrued parking tickets was a necessary “caretaking” activity required to maintain public safety and the efficient flow of traffic. Citing Dakota v. Opperman (1976), the court opined that the City had not adequately “shown that legally parked cars with unpaid parking tickets that present no threat to ‘public safety’ and the ‘efficient movement of vehicular traffic’ may be towed under … [the community caretaking] exception.”
The court declined the City’s “invitation to expand the scope of the [vehicular community caretaking] exception to embrace tows that serve less immediate public needs,” and limited caretaking tows to those that “address present, location-based obstacles to public safety or convenience, and involve cars that are illegally parked, create a hazard to other drivers or an obstacle to the flow of traffic, or are a target for vandalism or theft.” The court did not find compelling the City’s argument that the warrantless tows were nonetheless community caretaking, despite not posing an immediate public safety concern, because the tows are necessary to deter parking violations and nonpayment of tickets. The court also rejected the City’s second argument that warrantless tows could be upheld under a forfeiture rationale.
The major takeaway for municipalities is that in order to lawfully tow a vehicle without a warrant under the vehicular community caretaking exception, it needs to be established that the vehicle is either illegally parked, poses an immediate health and safety issue, creates a hazard to other drivers, or is vulnerable to vandalism or theft.
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