Last December, James Smith’s car was towed as a consequence of unpaid parking violations. Smith was homeless, and the car was his only shelter. Now, Smith filing suit against San Francisco, arguing that towing for debt-collection is unconstitutional.
James Smith, a 64-year-old San Franciscan, used to volunteer for the Coalition on Homelessness. He would help families find places to stay for a night. Sometimes he’d even open up his own little apartment.
Smith never expected that one day, he’d be the one living on the streets.
“Never, ever,” says Smith. “I asked myself, ‘what did I do wrong?’”
Smith relies on disability checks. He has back pain, and replacements in both his knees. It’s hard for him to hold down a job.
Last fall, he moved out of his apartment and started to sleep in the back of his 2007 Honda Accord.
“My money, my food, my clothing were in the car. So that was my home,” he says.
Smith also used his car to get odd jobs.
Then, a few days after Christmas last year, he says left his car for a couple hours on Hyde Street. He didn’t notice there was street sweeping that morning.
When he came back for his car, it was gone.
“I called the police department and told them I believe my car was stolen,” says Smith.
But it wasn’t stolen. It had been towed. When Smith got in touch with AutoReturn, the towing company that contracts with San Francisco, he found out that he had racked up 21 different parking violations. In order to get his car back, Smith would have to pay all the fees for the overdue parking tickets, plus a pile of towing and storage charges. He says it came out to almost $5,000.
“That is extremely too much for anyone with a fixed income — or even not with a fixed income — to have to pay that much money for a car being towed,” says Smith.
Smith didn’t have the money. Every day he didn’t pay, AutoReturn’s storage fees went up by another $71.
Is towing a car for overdue tickets unconstitutional?
San Francisco tows about 4,000 vehicles for overdue fines and fees each year.
Elisa Della-Piana, legal director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco, says that 50 percent of those vehicles are never reclaimed.
“People can't afford to pay the tow and storage fees to get them back,” she says, noting that across the state, 45,000 vehicles are sold each month after their owners fail to pay fines.
“This is permanent deprivation,” says Della-Piana, “people losing often their only asset, their only way to work, or the only way to take their kids to school, and for many people like Mr. Smith, their only shelter.”
The Lawyers’ Committee, along with with another nonprofit, Bay Area Legal Aid, are suing the SFMTA on Smith’s behalf.
The civil rights lawyers make a sweeping claim against the notion that cars can be towed because of overdue citations. Their case cites the 4th Amendment, which protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures” of property.
“It's unconstitutional to tow where there's not a warrant and there's not a public safety or urgent traffic-convenience issue,” says Della-Piana.
The lawyers also claim that it’s unconstitutional to tow a car because its owner is too poor to pay a fine.
John Coté, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office, wrote in an email that SFMTA’s policies “are consistent with both state law and the Constitution.”
“Mr. Smith received 21 parking tickets,” wrote Coté. “Each one of those tickets included on it a warning that if his car had five or more delinquent parking tickets, it could be impounded.”
Cars seized without final warning
Many of the citations on Smith’s car occurred before he became homeless. Smith says he was bedridden at the time, and his caretaker often failed to move his car for him.
The SFMTA sent notices of the overdue tickets by mail. But during this time, Smith had moved out of his apartment. He says he never saw the mail.
“I knew I might have a ticket or two,” says Smith, “but not as many as they claimed.”
The SFMTA doesn’t stick a final warning on a vehicle with more than five such “scofflaw” violations. Enforcement officers can order a car to be booted or towed immediately, even if the car is parked in a legal spot.
Smith says he was caught totally by surprise.
“It's just a hurting thing,” says Smith, “to come out and find that something that you've been paying on, that you cherish, something that you sleep in, something that you eat in, something that you think on, is gone.”
Without his car, Smith lost opportunities to work, and he lost his shelter. He says one night as he was trying to get some sleep out on the street, he woke up to a man kicking him.
The man stole his sweater, his shoes, and his money.
“The little money I had in my pocket, four dollars” says Smith. “That was my breakfast, and my lunch.”
SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose says if the agency believes someone is sleeping in their car, they'll try to connect that person with homeless services. But if the city didn’t enforce delinquent tickets by towing, “it wouldn’t incentivize people to move their cars when they're supposed to.”
Reforms to help low-income people pay fees
In 2016, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that towing charges in San Francisco were more than two or three times the rate of almost any other city in the United States.
That’s thanks largely to an unusual policy enacted by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in 2010, requiring that towing fees cover the “full cost” of the city’s tow program, including enforcement and administration.
In March, following new requirements in state law, the agency made it easier for people to sign up for their low-income payment plan for citations.
Before, it cost $60 to join the plan, and participants had only 14 weeks to pay. Now, people with incomes less than twice the federal poverty rate can enroll for just $5, and gradually pay off fees over a year and a half.
Spokesman Paul Rose says that four times as many people have enrolled in payment plans since the changes went into place. But the low-income payment plan does not apply to people whose cars have been towed. By then, it’s too late to enroll.
A second reform came in May, when the Board of Supervisors voted to lower boot and tow fees. People with low incomes can reduce a tow’s cost from $492 to $229, and eliminate the first three days of storage fees.
Civil rights lawyer Della-Piana says the various reforms are “an important first step” but “small changes compared to what's needed.”
Della-Piana hopes the lawsuit against San Francisco’s towing practices will “change the laws in California and hopefully through the country.”
Smith gets a break
Smith’s case has moved up to a federal court. In the meantime, his lawyers negotiated with the SFMTA, asking the agency to give Smith his car back. In April, almost four months after the car was towed, the city agreed.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Smith gets in a Lyft, along with a woman who works with the Lawyers’ Committee. Together, they go to the tow yard in Bayshore.
“It’s like going to see the wizard,” says Smith.
Smith walks into the gated are where towed cars are stored. AutoReturn employees jump his Honda, and let him drive away.
“It’s a great day today,” says Smith, grinning. “Every day that that car was gone, I have thought about it. Every day, every hour, I would think about it.”
Smith drives to a gas station and takes a squeegee to his windows, which haven’t been cleaned in months.
“This is so wonderful, just to be able to wipe my windows down again,” says Smith.
Depending on the outcome of Smith’s case, some of his towing charges and late fees might be dropped. But he still owes the city for the original 21 parking tickets.
Smith has enrolled in a plan to pay off the tickets by doing community-service hours at a local nonprofit — one that provides homeless services.
Smith’s lawyers say that with his back pain, it’s difficult for him to complete the required ten hours a week.
But now, at least he has a place to sleep.