Predatory Towing in California: What You Can Do to Get Your Car and Your Money Back

If you car has been towed from private property such as a store, bank, shopping center or restaurant parking lot this is a must read article for you! Your car may have been towed without following the proper procedures as set forth in the California Motor Vehicle Code and your local city Traffic Code.This Blog refers to the San Francisco Traffic Code because that is where my car was towed. Most cities codes are probably similar even if they are not in California

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Rules Have Changed - Motor Vehicle Code Amended - Effective January 1, 2007

A bill introduced by assembly member Jackie Goldberg and signed into law on September 29, 2006 has changed the law in regard to predatory towing and practices. The legislation adds new provisions, tightens existing regulations and adds criminal penalties for certain violations.

I am pleased that of the 13 recommendations I made in this Blog in 2004, six of them (4, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 12) have now been enacted into law by these new amendments. You can see my original recommendations by scrolling down to the end of the main article My Car Has Been Towed - What Now

Here are some of the new amended laws main provisions:

1. Property Owner must give written authorization at place of tow which includes time they first noticed your vehicle, time they called tow company, VIN number, license number, their signature and job title, their address and phone number. This provision alone should stop the predatory tow truck operators, unless of course they don't mind going to jail!

2. No tow beyond 10 miles - This is a great new provision

3. Must take credit card as payment - Now Includes all Credit Cards, not just Master Card and Visa. Some local ordinances such as those in San Francisco allowed you to give the tow operator a check, but this is not in the California Motor Vehicle Code.

4. Must keep tow records on file for three years

5. Must release vehicle if owner arrives before tow driver leaves - But still must pay up to 1/2 of regular tow fee - maybe? (see main article for my comments)

6. Vehicle cannot be towed during first hour unless sign is posted stating no parking (see sign requirements in main article)

7. Illegal towing becomes a crime - This is probably the biggest change. From San Diego to the Oregon border Californians have been ripped off by illegal towing scams. People park their car, go into a fast food restaurant or shop for 15 minutes and come out and find their car missing. After hundreds of complaints and numerous investigative reports by California newspapers and Television stations the legislature has finally taken action.

The changes are profound but I believe some parts of the new law are ambiguous and others give the tow truck companies extra fees where they would otherwise not have them. At least now though, when you believe your car has been wrongfully towed, California District Attorneys will listen to you and take action.

Many of the new changes in the law deal with the towing of vehicles from apartment complexes of 15 or less units without an on site manager and 15 or more units with an on site manager. This blog does not address itself to these circumstances except perhaps in an incidental manner. The primary focus of this blog is the towing of vehicles from shopping center, bank and other retail establishment parking lots.

The changes do not take effect until Jan. 1, 2007. I have indicated the new changes and my thoughts by using mostly red but sometimes blue and green in the text throughout this blog.

Article 22658 has been amended and rewritten in many ways. Some provisions have been modified. Others added or deleted. Thus the numbering and lettering of the sections and subsections may be different after January 1, 2007 than they were when I originally published this blog. I cannot go back and renumber everything. It is simply too much work. You should have no problems with any of this if you just read my blog and the new amendments as I have rewritten it.

Monday, November 01, 2004

My Car Has Been Towed - What Now?

Car Towed?
What to Do if Your Car Has Been Towed from Private Property
And How To Get Your Money Back - Plus Penalties

If your car has been towed from a private parking lot in San Francisco this is a must read article for you. It will explain the procedure that must be followed by both the lot or landowner and the towing company. If these procedures are not followed you are entitled to get your money back plus penalties from the landowner and/or the towing company. Golden Gate Towing towed my car from the CitiBank lot at 25th and Geary. Thus throughout this article you will see references to Golden Gate Towing and CitiBank.

The Law – Part One

Towing of Motor Vehicles in California is governed by two legal sources. The first is the California Motor Vehicle Code and specifically: CHAPTER 10: REMOVAL OF PARKED AND ABANDONED VEHICLES. These Chapters are subdivided into “Articles”. The most pertinent Article of this code, as it relates to the subject of this story is Article 22658.

The California Motor Vehicle Code is important for two primary reasons. First because it provides specific provisions, rules, regulations and procedures that must be followed throughout the State of California by towing companies and owners of private property employing those towing companies. Second, because it grants local authorities such as the City and County of San Francisco the power to enact Ordinances regulating these same towing companies and private property owners employing their services. Not all local Cities and Counties have or will pass these ordinances. But San Francisco has! It is “The San Francisco Traffic Code”. This is the second legal source I referred to above. The two most important sections of this San Francisco Traffic Code that affect you are Sections 9 and 9A.

There are two places that your vehicle can be towed from. A public place, such as a street or highway and a private place, such as a store, apartment or bank parking lot. This article deals exclusively with the removal of a vehicle from private property. Removal of a vehicle from public property can only be initiated by a public official, namely a police officer or parking control officer granted such authority. We are not concerned with such removal here.

The One Hour Rule

Section 22953 of the California Motor Vehicle Code provides:
(a) Every owner or person in lawful possession of any
private property which is held open to the public, or a discernible portion thereof, for parking of vehicles at no fee, shall not tow or remove, or cause the towing or removal, of any vehicle within one hour of the vehicle being parked.
(b) Notwithstanding subdivision (a), a vehicle may be removed immediately after being illegally parked within 15 feet of a fire hydrant, in a fire lane, or in a parking space or stall legally designated for disabled persons.
(c) Subdivision (a) does not apply to property designated for parking at an apartment complex, or to property designated for parking at a hotel or motel where the parking stalls or spaces are clearly marked for a specific room.

So, if it is a free parking lot, such as a store, shopping center, mall etc. you can park for at least an hour before they can tow your car. You can park longer if there is a sign authorizing it. For example 3 hours free parking for customers, etc. But if it is an apartment or hotel or motel with numbered spots for the apartments or rooms, don't park in one of those spots. You can be towed immediately! Same for parking within 15 feet of a fire hydrant or a disabled spot.

Now, lets examine the pertinent provisions of the California Motor Vehicle Code. Article 22658 (a) provides that within 1 hour prior to removing a vehicle from private property the owner of the property or person in lawful possession of the property shall notify the local traffic enforcement agency by telephone of the intended removal. Can’t be any simpler. What is the purpose of this provision? (1) To make sure that only the owner of the property can remove the vehicle and (2) To give the authorities the make, model and license plate number so when the owner calls the police screaming that his car has been stolen he will be informed that his car has been towed, not stolen.

In my case I found out that CitiBank did not make the call. The Golden Gate Towing Company had made the call. A clear violation of Article 22658. I wanted to find out what the San Francisco Parking and Traffic Department was requiring in regard to these calls so I decided to investigate. I called them on 3 separate occasions (speaking to 3 different employees) telling them I owned a private parking lot and wanted to call and inform the City that I was about to tow a car off my private parking lot as required by Article 22658 (a) of the California Motor Vehicle Code. Each time I called the person answering the phone said it was not necessary for me to call - just call a towing company and they will call us (Parking & Traffic Control). I then pointed out the Vehicle Code Required the call to be made by the owner of the lot or person in possession of the lot and read this code Article to them. I further stated I didn't want to make a mistake and wanted to follow the law. Each time I was told not to worry about it, just let the towing company make the call. This was standard operating procedure.

Let’s now look at Article 22658 (l) (1) of the California Motor Vehicle Code.
“A towing company shall not remove or commence the removal of a vehicle from private property without first obtaining written authorization from the property owner or lessee, or an employee or agent thereof, who shall be present at the time of removal. General authorization to remove or commence removal of a vehicle at the towing company's discretion shall not be delegated to a towing company or its affiliates except in the case of a vehicle unlawfully parked within 15 feet of a fire hydrant or in a fire lane, or in a manner which interferes with any entrance to, or exit from, the private property”.

Again it can’t be any simpler. Let’s break it down phrase by phrase:
1. The owner of the lot or his agent must be present in person at the time of towing.
2. The owner or his agent must sign an authorization at the time of the tow.
3. A prior written authorization is not valid.
4. The only time the towing company can tow your vehicle with only a prior blanket or general authority is when it is blocking the entrance or exit or within 15 feet of a fire hydrant or in a fire lane. If this happens the towing company is required to take a picture of your vehicle in the lot, showing the violation, and to give you a copy of the picture.
The New Amendments do not change any of this but they add a lot more protection. Under the new amendments, effective January 1, 2007 before a towing company shall commence the removal the written authorization from the property owner or his agent (who must be present) shall include:
  1. The make, model, VIN and license plate number
  2. The name, signature, job title, residential or business address and working phone number of the person authorizing the removal of the vehicle
  3. The grounds for the removal
  4. The time the vehicle was first observed parked at the private property
  5. The time the authorization to tow the vehicle was given
If all of the above is done and your vehicle is towed to a storage facility they must give you a copy of the Written Authorization, with all of the above information BEFORE you pay any towing and/or storage fees.

Failure of the owner of the property to follow the law in regard to proper signage and notice of the tow to the authorities subjects the owner to a penalty of douible the storage or towing charges. Yes, it is or, not both. But you can go after the owner and the towing company in small claims court if you so desire.

They must also give you a form instructing you that if you believe your vehicle was wrongfully towed to contact the local authorities and provide you with the phone number. In addition they must notify the local law enforcement agency within 60 minutes after the vehicle is removed from private property and is in transit and no later than 15 minutes after arriving at a storage facility. The owner or agent authorizing the tow also has one hour to notify the traffic authority by phone or in person, of the tow. Failure of the owner or tow truck operator to give the notice in time is a misdemeanor plus subjects the tow company to 3 times the amount of the towing and storage charges.

In my opinion these provisions alone will stop 95 percent of all predatory towing (towing by trucks prowling the streets without authorization) and will reduce the total number of vehicles towed. After all what property owner or manager is going to be willing to fill out the required form and keep track of all the vehicles parked in his lot. They will have better things to do, such as running their business. What the tow truck companies do is another story. Only time will tell.

The Law – Part Two

There are a few other requirements you might want to keep your eyes open for. The first thing to look for is a sign authorizing the lawful towing of your car as provided in Article 22658 (a)(1): (Paraphrasing) If the vehicle is in running condition and has not been ticketed for a parking violation, it is unlawful to tow the vehicle unless there is displayed, in plain view at all entrances to the property, a sign not less than 17 by 22 inches in size, with lettering not less than one inch in height, prohibiting public parking and indicating that vehicles will be removed at the owner's expense, and containing the telephone number of the local traffic law enforcement agency. Under the new amendments the phone numbers of any towing company authorized to tow vehicles from this location must also be on the sign.

The phone number is important. It must be the phone number of the local traffic authority, and not the towing company! It can have both, but if there is only one phone number the statute requires it to be the phone number of the local traffic law enforcement agency! In my case the Citibank sign did not comply with the law. It listed the phone number of Golden Gate Towing Company. The correct phone number to the San Francisco Traffic and Parking Enforcement office (at the time this article is being written) is 415-553-1239. This Citibank lot also had two smaller signs at the back of the lot that did not meet the legal requirements. They were much smaller than 17 x 22 and they listed a Non Working Phone Number! (See sign photos). Under the new amendments the phone numbers of any towing company authorized to tow vehicles from this location must also be on the sign. So now both numbers must be on the sign. The local traffic authority AND the towing company.

Article 22658 has a few other minor provisions that may be of interest. For instance if you confront the owner of the lot and want an explanation of why your vehicle was towed, he/she is required to “state the grounds for removal”. If the owner refuses to state the grounds for the towing of your vehicle he is responsible to you for double the storage or towing charges. Under the new amendments the tow truck operator is also required to state the reason your vehicle is being towed. I can't find any penalty for his not doing so. Of course if they towed your car and you went to get it at the storage yard they MUST give you a copy of the written authorization to tow your vehicle which, by law is required to have the reason for the tow written on it.

What happens if you come back to the lot and your car is still on the lot but it is now attached to the tow truck or up on a separate dolly owned by the towing company? Article 22658(h) covers this situation, which probably happens quite often. For instance a friend runs over to your apartment and starts screaming, “Hey dude, there is a tow truck down there in the bank parking lot towing away your new Hummer”. If that happens the towing company may impose a charge of not more than one-half of the regular towing fee and give you the vehicle before it is towed away. Once towed off the lot, it is too late; the full fee plus storage will apply.

This is where the new amendments don't make sense. Under the old law the towing company could charge not more than one-half their regular towing fee if you returned to your vehicle before it was removed from the property. The old regulations never said anything about the vehicle having to be attached to the tow truck or lifted onto a dolly or off the ground.

I admit I just read that into the statute myself; I inferred it. For instance, under the old statute, if you or I came back to a parking lot and saw a tow truck near our vehicle or approaching our vehicle we would get in and start to drive off. If the tow driver then blocked our exit or just came up to us and said we owed him money (1/2 of his regular fee) we would tell him to take a hike. The police may have been called but if they were they would probably also tell the tow truck driver to take a hike because there was no hook up, attachment or lifting.

Under the new amendments what I implied is actually written into the law. If the tow truck operator has attached a hitch, coupling device, drawbar, portable dolly or lifted your vehicle off the ground and you return BEFORE he has removed your vehicle from the lot he may impose a charge of not more than one-half of his regular towing charge. So far so good. But 9 lines up from this language in the statute it says "Upon the request of the owner of the vehicle the towing company or its driver shall immediately and unconditionally release a vehicle that is not yet removed from the private property and in transit".

To me, an unconditional release is a release without payment or the promise of payment in exchange for the release. What was our legislature thinking when they put both these provisions in the law, I don't know. But I would argue that if I returned before my car was removed from the lot and demanded it be released immediately and unconditionally, even if it were up off the ground, that tow truck operator MUST release the vehicle without payment!

Article 22658 provides penalties for wrongful towing or excessive charges but before we get to that there is one more provision of Article 22658 that you should know about. This is the beginning paragraph, section (a). It states (paraphrasing) that the owner or person in lawful possession of the private property “may cause the removal of a vehicle parked on the property to the nearest public garage”.

What exactly does this mean? Does it mean the Golden Gate Towing Company or any other towing company has the lawful right or authority to tow your vehicle from 25th Avenue and Geary Blvd. to their garage approximately 10 or 15 miles from where your car was picked up? Does it mean they have the lawful right to tow your vehicle 10 or 15 miles from where you live or work? Does it mean they can tow your vehicle past numerous public garages that are a heck of a lot closer to where they picked the car up? Evidently they think this is exactly what it means, because this is exactly what they are doing!

I think the words “nearest public garage” mean exactly that. Thus if there is a “public garage” one block away from where your vehicle was picked up then this is where your vehicle should be taken. The definition of “nearest public garage” does not depend on what the meaning of “is” is! When you drive around San Francisco look around and see how many times in one day you see a sign that says “Public Parking”. That my friend is a “public garage” if it is enclosed within the confines of four walls and has a roof on it, as compared to a public parking lot. It must be a garage, not a parking lot.

How do these towing companies get away with this? Very simple. Nobody ever complains. The poor suckers who get their cars towed just pay the fees and grumble and curse to themselves and their friends but never question or complain to the authorities. Thus the agencies charged with regulating these towing companies never hearing any complaints presume everything is just fine between the “tow-ers” and the “tow-ees”! (According to Rule 171 of the San Francisco Traffic Code, The Police Commission and the Parking and Traffic Commission are authorized, directed and empowered to oversee these towing companies and their practices). What can be done about this? See my Recommendations at the end of this article.

The new amendments finally address this issue. They specifically state that a towed vehicle must be stored in a facility located within a 10-mile radius of the property from where the vehicle was removed. There are some exceptions for vehicles towed from outside city limits, such as in the country etc. Plus the towing company can apply for a waiver. This I do not like. There are enough towing companies so that any parking lot in any major city will be within 10 miles of it. I predict you will see large towing companies getting waivers so they can tow cars 15, 20 or 30 miles to their locations. A better solution would have been to limit the charge per mile for towing and cap it at 10 miles!

The Law – Part Three

We are now going to leave Article 22658 of the California Motor Vehicle Code and look at the San Francisco Traffic Code, which I told you about earlier. We will not leave it entirely, however because as you will soon see the two Laws (State and San Francisco) are intertwined with each other – joined at the hip.

The San Francisco Traffic Code consists of 21 “Articles” which are then broken down into “Sections”. We are only going to be concerned with Articles 9 and 9A. The following four Sections of Article 9 are the most important sections and which provide the foundation for this story. Here they are (Paraphrasing):

SEC. 163. The Director of Parking and Traffic shall enter into contracts on behalf of the City and County of San Francisco with one or more companies to tow and store vehicles …for a fee which shall not be in excess of that agreed upon in said contract.

SEC. 166. MAXIMUM FEES. The contract shall provide for the maximum fee which the towing company may charge the owner of the vehicle for the towing and storage.

SEC. 168. A copy of such contract and a schedule of the fees authorized shall be maintained in a conspicuous place in the garage where the vehicles are stored and in the offices of the Police Commission, the Department of Parking and Traffic and the Board of Supervisors.

SEC. 170. It shall be unlawful for the towing company with the contract to charge the owner of a vehicle fees in excess of those authorized by the contract.

The City and County have entered into such a contract. The company that currently has this contract is named “Auto Return” (City Tow had the contract previously). Now you say, what has this got to do with my car being towed by Golden Gate Towing or your car being towed by Ajax Towing? Good question. For the answer we must now go to Article 9A of the San Francisco Traffic Code and specifically the following two Sections.

SEC. 172.04. TOWING AND STORAGE FEES. Fees for towing and storage pursuant to Vehicle Code Section 22658 shall be based on the fees currently in effect in the Agreement between the City and County of San Francisco and the contractor currently performing the tows of vehicles, except abandoned vehicles, in accordance with Article 9 of this Traffic Code. Towing and storage fees shall not exceed the amounts set forth in said Agreement. Should no agreement be in effect, the towing and storage charges shall not exceed the amounts in the last effective Agreement.

SEC. 172.05. EXCESSIVE FEE UNLAWFUL. It shall be unlawful for any towing firm to charge the owner or operator of a vehicle fees in excess of those authorized and established by this Article.

Wow, this is powerful language. Do you get it? The City and County of San Francisco have just told you that every company towing vehicles in the City and County of San Francisco can charge you whatever they want as long as the charges do not exceed the contract rate currently in effect between The City and County of San Francisco and “Auto Return”. This is a knockout punch for Golden Gate and other towing companies charging excessive fees.

Actually section 22658 (i) of the Motor Vehicle Code has a provision it it that requires a towing company to charge the same or less than the same towing or storage charges would be if the towing company had been called by a law enforcement officer. Here is the exact language:
"A charge for towing or storage, or both, of a vehicle under this section is excessive if the charge is greater than that which would have been charged for towing or storage, or both, made at the request of a law enforcement agency under an agreement between the law enforcement agency and a towing company in the city or county in which is located the private property from which the vehicle was, or was attempted to be, removed".

The amended Code keeps this same provision. So if you don't live in San Francisco check your own city code to see if they have a contract with a towing company to tow illegally parked or abandoned cars etc. If they do, then check the authorized towing and storage charges. If the company that towed your vehicle charged more for towing or storage than your city authorizes then you have been excessively charged

Lets now look at the authorized towing and storage rates currently in effect (as of August 15th, 2004) between the City and County of San Francisco and the Auto Return Company for a passenger vehicle or light duty pickup truck – less than 1.5 tons. Just for comparison I will show in the following table the actual fees charged to me by Golden Gate Towing.

Comparison of Authorized Auto Return Fees & Golden Gate Fees Charged to Me

Auto Return Towing Charges $121.75 ......Golden Gate $170
Auto Return Storage Charges 1st Four Hours: Free ......Golden Gate $48*
Auto Return next 20 hours $28.50 .....Golden Gate $48
Auto Return Subsequent 24 Hour Intervals $35 ...Golden Gate $48
Auto Return Gate Fee $0.00 ....Golden Gate $30
* Minimum charge regardless of how many hours car is held during 1st day

As you can see Auto Return does not charge for storage for the first 4 hours. Thus, if you find your car has been towed on Friday night and you get to the Auto Return Office within the first four hours your storage charges stop the minute you make your payment, even though you choose not retrieve your vehicle until, for example Monday Morning. (See next paragraph). They also do not charge a “gate fee” for opening their gate and letting you have your car back. A gate fee is not authorized by either the State Motor Vehicle Code or the San Francisco Traffic Code. Uh oh! Guess what? The new amended Motor Vehicle code authorizes a gate fee "for releasing a vehicle after normal business hours, weekends, and state holidays. However, the maximum hourly charge for releasing a vehicle after normal business hours shall be one-half of the hourly tow rate charged for initially towing the vehicle, or less." (This is the exact language in the new amended code). The new amendments define normal business hours as Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The original vehicle code did not define normal business hours. It just used the term normal business hours.

So if your car is towed on Friday night after 5 p.m. you are going to pay a gate fee to get it out Friday evening, Saturday or Sunday, if you can find someone to give your money too. You can tender the fees and stop all storage charges, but again you must find an employee of the towing company or storage company to give your money to; but you will still pay a gate fee if it is after normal business hours!

But wait. Lets go back to about two or three pages in the code [sorry, until it is actually published I cannot give you the exact page or section number but it appears to be section (i)(3)] where it states that if the storage facility is not open for business during normal business hours then only one day's storage may be required to be paid until after the first business day - but only if you request your vehicle to be released and tender the fees within the first 24 hours. Talk about ambiguous and a Catch 22 here it is! How can you request your vehicle be released and tender the fees if the storage yard is not open for business and you cannot find anyone to talk to! What they should have said is that if you tow vehicles after normal business hours then you must stay open after normal business hours so people can get their vehicles back!

There are some major problems with this gate fee. First of all much of the towing takes place at night and on weekends while you are in a restaurant or movie or out shopping after work. These predator towing companies don't mind working nights, weekends and holidays, including Christmas. A gate fee just adds to your misery. But what if your city code does not authorize a gate fee. The vehicle code says that a tow company cannot charge more than what a city code authorizes. For instance San Francisco does not authorize a gate fee, so I would argue no gate fee is allowed in San Francisco even though the California Motor Vehicle Code authorizes it. But doesn't the California Motor Vehicle Code also say the towing company cannot charge more for towing and storage than any tow would have cost if requested by a law officer. Yes, it does. But that means towing and storage. This gate fee is for opening the gate to the storage yard after hours (I know because that is what happened in my case) in order for you to retrieve your vehicle. Why the legislature allowed this fee I don't know. I suspect there was a good deal of lobbying by the tow truck industry.

Another problem with the gate fee is that it states it "shall be one-half of the hourly tow rate charged for initially towing the vehicle, or less". Have you ever had a vehicle towed? Ever used a tow truck to tow your car to a garage or repair facility? Ever used a tow truck to tow your car home from a fender bender until you decide what you are going to do with it? Well in case you don't know it, they don't charge by the hour! They generally charge a flat fee plus mileage. Suppose your car breaks down 5 blocks from your house and you call a tow truck to tow it home for you so you can fix it yourself. Are you going to tell the driver it only takes 5 minutes to go the 5 miles to your house and expect to pay him by the hour? Dream on. He will probably hit you with a minimum fee between $100 and $250. Look what I was charged by Golden Gate tow - $170 for about a 15 mile tow that took about 30 minutes. The City of San Francisco's authorized charge for this same tow was $121.75. The menu of authorized charges between the City of San Francisco and Auto Return does not even mention an hourly charge for towing. I submit to you there is no such thing in the towing industry, but after this new amended vehicle code takes place you will see fees posted on tow truck storage and garage walls stating they charge $100 or more dollars per hour to tow! Sounds like another lobbying job by the towing industry. The legislature should have told the towing companies if you tow nights and weekends and holidays you stay open nights and weekends and holidays. They should have only authorized a gate fee for vehicles towed during normal business hours where the owner drags the tow company employee down to the storage yard after normal business hours and the fee should have been set at a fixed rate, such as $15 which would apply Statewide instead of an arbitrary hourly rate. What if one company sets their hourly rate at $100 and another at $200. How is that going to sit with the Citizens of California, especially after their car was just towed, rightfully or wrongfully!

Auto Return has been given space in the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street Room 145. Their phone number is 415-621-8605. They tow vehicles 24 hours per day 365 days per year and their office in the Hall of Justice is open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, even Holidays, such as Christmas. If Auto Return has towed your vehicle you may retrieve it 24 hours per day 7 days per week from their storage facility located at 415 7th Street, a block from the Hall of Justice. Now that is convenience! Auto Return also has another lot at Pier 70, which, as of August 15, 2004 was only open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If your car has been towed there go to the Auto Return office in the Hall of Justice and pay the appropriate fees anytime, day or night. Again, your storage charges stop the minute you make your payment.

Auto Return is also authorized to charge an Administrative Fee. Sections 170.1 and 170.2 of the Traffic Code authorize this. It is a specific fee to reimburse the Department of Parking and Traffic (Section 170.1) and the Police Department (170.2) for their administrative costs in administering the towing of vehicles under the California Vehicle Code and the San Francisco Traffic Code. This fee is currently set at $50 for a passenger vehicle. Private towing companies such as Golden Gate Towing are not authorized by law to collect or charge an administrative fee! You will probably never come in contact with Auto Return unless your vehicle is towed from a public street or road at the request of a Police Officer, Highway Patrolman, Sheriff’s Deputy or Parking Control Officer. But some of the rules I am now going to discuss apply to them as well as all private tow companies operating in the City and County of San Francisco.

What happens if your car is towed and all you have is a Credit Card or a Check and no cash on you? Without giving specific citations to Sections of the Vehicle Code or Traffic Code I will tell you all towing companies in San Francisco must accept a valid Master or Visa (not American Express) credit card or a check. With reference to personal checks, the towing firm may require that (1) checks be personalized, (2) checks be written against a California Bank, (3) checks be made out to “Cash”' and (4) the person presenting the check show a valid California driver's license or equivalent identification. They are also required by law to keep sufficient cash on hand to make change. Naturally, the property owner and the towing company can be held responsible for damage to your vehicle while in their custody during towing or storage.

In the following sections I am going to discuss penalties for violations of both the California Motor Vehicle Code and the San Francisco Traffic Code and my recommendations to the San Francisco Mayor and Board of Supervisors for amending the Traffic Code to prevent Cruel and Unusual Punishment. But first I want to discuss:

The 24 Hour Rule
Perhaps the most upsetting thing to me about this whole affair of having my car towed (after the initial discovery that the car was missing) was the egregious and outrageous conduct of Golden Gate Towing in charging me for two days of storage when they only had possession of my vehicle for approximately 19 hours. Golden Gate employees told me, that the minute the clock struck midnight a new day of storage charges began. It would make no difference if my car had been placed in storage like it had about 10:30 p.m. or even 11:59 p.m. At midnight I would owe for another day’s storage.

This is a direct violation of Article 22658 Sections (i) (1) (2) and (3) which (paraphrasing) provide the towing company can only charge the same amount that could be charged by the company having the Contract with the City and County of San Francisco, i.e., Auto Return.

Thus, if a request to release a vehicle is made and the appropriate fees are tendered within the initial 24 hours of storage, then only one day's storage can be charged. But watch out for the towing company, such as Golden Gate, that is not “open” on weekends but doesn’t mind “towing” your car on weekends, Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years day. That’s right they tow 365 days a year but some are only open for you to retrieve your vehicle Monday through Friday so they can charge you for 2 extra days of storage! This is immoral and prohibited under Article 22658 BUT only if you tender the fees within 24 hours of the tow. How are you going to tender the fees if they are not open? You can if you live in a city such as San Francisco that has an office that is open 24 hours per day.

What are the penalties for violation of these laws and codes? There are many. Lets first look at the penalties available against the owner of the parking lot or property from where your vehicle was towed. The Motor Vehicle Code Article 22658 Section (e) provides for (paraphrasing) double the Storage or Towing Charges for failure to have the correct sign on their property or the failure to state the grounds for removal when requested by the owner of the vehicle.

As for the towing company itself, there are more severe penalties. Section (j) (paraphrasing) provides any towing company who charges a vehicle owner a towing, service, or storage charge at an excessive rate, as described in subdivision (i), is liable to the vehicle owner for four times the amount charged.

What is an excessive rate under Subdivision (i) described immediately above?
(1) Charging more for towing or storage than Auto Return Charges.
(2) Charging more than one day’s storage for a vehicle released within 24 hours from the time the vehicle is brought into the storage facility or where the fees were tendered within 24 hours regardless of the calendar date.
(3) Failure to accept credit cards provides for a penalty of four times the amount of the towing and storage charges but not to exceed $500 [This part is in Article 22658 (k)]

Remember we discussed in the beginning of this article that the owner of the parking lot or his/her representative must be present at the time the vehicle is towed AND contemporaneously sign a written document authorizing the removal. Failure to do so makes the towing company (not the property owner) liable to the owner of the vehicle for four times the amount of the towing and storage charges, in addition to any applicable criminal penalty! [Article 22658 (l)(3)]

Surprisingly there is no specific provision in the Motor Vehicle Code providing a penalty for failing to tow the vehicle to the nearest public garage, although this is a requirement of Article 22658 (a)! It can be inferred however from Article 9A, SEC. 172.01 of the San Francisco Traffic Code that towing a vehicle beyond the nearest public garage is abusive and illegal activity. 172.01 is hereby quoted in its entirety: “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the City and County of San Francisco that the towing of motor vehicles is a matter affecting the public interest and should be subject to regulation for the purpose of safeguarding the public against fraud, exorbitant rates and similar abuse”. (Emphasis added).

The only Section of Article 9A that specifically provides a criminal penalty is found in SEC. 172.10, as follows: “Violation of Sections 172.05, 172.06 or 172.08 herein shall be a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine not to exceed $1,500, or by imprisonment in the County Jail for a term of not more than six months, or both such fine and such imprisonment”.
So what conduct is considered a misdemeanor under this section? Let’s recap here in the following chart:

Summary of Offenses and Punishment
Traffic Code Section 172.05 - Charging Excessive Fees: $1500 fine and/or 6 months in jail.

Traffic Code Section 172.06 - Paying a fee or kickback to owner of parking lot: $1500 fine and/or 6 months in jail.

Traffic Code Section 172.08 - Failure to accept Checks, Master or Visa Card: $1500 fine and/or 6 months in jail.

What about all the misconduct I have mentioned above that is not covered in this table or by the Traffic Code. The following covers those violations.

Vehicle Code Offenses & Penalties
Vehicle Code 22658 Section (a)(1) - Failure to have proper sign: Double the towing or storage charges. Owner of Lot is Liable.

Vehicle Code 22658 Section (f) - Failure to state grounds for towing: Double the towing or storage charges. Owner of Lot is Liable.

Vehicle Code 22658 Section (j) - Excessive Charges. Four times the towing AND storage charges. Towing Company is Liable.

Vehicle Code 22658 Section (k) - Failure to accept Master or Visa Card. Four times the towing AND storage charges (Maximum $500). Towing Company is Liable.

Vehicle Code 22658 Section (l)(3) - Removal without lot or land owner present. Four times the towing AND storage charges. Towing Company is Liable.

Vehicle Code 22658 Section (l)(3) - Removal without current written authorization. Four times the towing AND storage charges. Towing Company is Liable.

Now that we have established that Golden Gate Towing or Ajax Towing has violated the California Motor Vehicle Code and/or the San Francisco Traffic Code, what can be done about it? You are not a lawyer and don’t have the money or the knowledge to sue these people, do you? Will the District Attorney or City Attorney go after these wrongdoers for you? After all, the violation of these Laws, Statutes and Ordinances is criminal activity, isn’t it? The District Attorney and City Attorney have a duty to protect you as a Citizen of the State of California and a resident of The City and County of San Francisco against criminal activity, right? The answer is maybe! Under the new amended laws I don't think you will have any trouble getting your local district attorney to take action against a predatory or rogue towing company.

The District Attorney is charged by law to prosecute all criminal activity brought to their attention. Thus, for the above offenses providing for a criminal penalty you must go through the District Attorneys office. They are located in the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street and their phone number is 415-553-9530. You might also try their consumer fraud division 415-551-9595.

The San Francisco City Attorney should, in my opinion prosecute any case against a towing company because of Article 9A, SEC. 172.01. which I quote above, and again here, stating “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the City and County of San Francisco that the towing of motor vehicles is a matter affecting the public interest and should be subject to regulation for the purpose of safeguarding the public against fraud, exorbitant rates and similar abuse.” You can contact the City Attorney at room 234 of the City Hall. Phone: 415-554-4700 or 415-554-3800

Who better to protect the public interest and to safeguard the public against fraud and abuse than The City Attorney of San Francisco! I find it difficult to believe the San Francisco City Attorney would not file suit against any towing company or owner of a private parking lot or facility who violates 22658 or 9A or at least write them a letter on your behalf “requesting” they pay you.

After the City Tow debacle the SF City Attorney, Herrera, held a press conference and posted a link on their web site promising to protect the Citizens of San Francisco from City Tow abuse. I presume that he would be more than happy to take on any other towing company that dares to abuse the Citizens of San Francisco! Check the San Francisco City Attorney's Web Site at

But, you must do your homework first. Don’t walk into the District Attorney’soffice or City Attorney’s office with doing the following before you go:

1. Bring them copies of the towing charges and storage charges you were forced to pay.
2. Go by Auto Return and pick up a copy of their current charges so the District Attorney or City Attorney can compare your charges to the lawful authorized charges of Auto Return.
3. Take pictures of the lot your car was towed from showing there was no sign. Or if there was a sign that did not comply with the law, take pictures of that sign using a tape measure as shown in the photos accompanying this story.
4. When you pick up your car from the towing company take a witness with you.
5. Ask the towing company for the name of the person who owned the lot or their employee in charge of the lot.
6. Ask if that person was there in person when your car was towed.
7. Ask to see the document this person signed and gave to the tow truck driver at the time your car was towed.
8. Ask for a copy of this document. Don’t worry a refusal almost always will mean they don’t have it!
9. Politely ask the owner or representative of the lot your car was towed from if they were present Saturday Night at 2 .a.m. (or whenever) when your car was towed away. You can bet they were home in bed and not present when your car was towed. In my case I went to the Citibank Branch my car was towed from and talked to the Bank Manager who told us she did not know any cars were towed until the following Monday Morning. My wife was with me as my witness. (I learned that 6 or 7 cars were towed at the same time my car was towed)
10. Take notes after each of the above steps. Type out your notes or print them neatly before going to the District Attorney or City Attorney.

Now, what do you do if both the District Attorney and The City Attorney tell you to take a hike? As I see it you have four choices. Choice (1) is to call the headquarters of the Bank or Store who towed your car. Most large corporations such as BankAmerica, Citibank, Washington Mutual, Wells Fargo, Albertsons, Walgreen’s, Ross Dress for Less etc. would rather do the right thing instead of protecting an unscrupulous towing company. They will probably just see to it that you get your money back but would not press the towing companies (or themselves) to pay you any of the penalties you are entitled to by law. If all you want is your money back try this choice first. Some may surprise you and give you the penalties too, but only if you walk in with all your “proof”.

These Companies (that own the parking lots) may not know the first thing about the law regulating towing. They probably rely upon some towing company operator who comes in and says he knows the law and if they give him a signed authorization he will check the lot from time to time and tow away those cars that don’t belong there. He will even be so nice as to supply and pay for the signs! Why not, wouldn’t you pay $35 or even $100 for a sign that will allow you to make thousands of dollars in towing and storage charges!

Choice (2) is to file suit yourself in Small Claims Court. The beauty of going into small claims court is that you don’t need a lawyer and the towing company or parking lot owner is not allowed to use one against you. It only costs $20 for the filing fee and you can obtain a judgment for 4 times the amount of the towing and storage charges. In my particular case with Golden Gate Tow this is approximately $1200 plus my court costs. What defense would the towing company have? None. If they overcharged you and you have copies of all the documents you are going to win. (See the section on doing your homework, above). A complete do it yourself primer on Small Claims Court is provided for you absolutely free by the State of California on the Internet at

Choice (3) would be to complain to the Mayor of San Francisco at City Hall. Phone 415-554-6141.

Choice (4) would be to complain to your Supervisor. For the correct number to call look in the Government Section of the White Pages of the Phone Book under Board of Supervisors.

Now that you know all there is to know about the subject of towing and what to do if your car has been towed from a Private Parking lot or garage I am going to make some recommendations. These recommendations are strictly my own thoughts based upon my personal experiences as outlined above and upon my research for this story. To you, the reader:
1. Don’t park in a parking lot that has signs stating your car will be towed, unless you have permission to park there from the owner.
2. Expect to be towed if you do.
3. If a towing company or parking lot owner has violated the law you have up to one year to take the courses of action outlined above.
4. Cut this article out; save it and use it.

Recommendations to the Mayor and Board of Supervisors: Amend Article 9A of the Traffic Code to:
1. Include the following provision from Article 22658 (a) stating that all vehicles towed by private towing companies “must be towed to the nearest public garage” from the site the vehicle was picked up at.
2. Define, by distance limitations what the “nearest public garage” means.
3. Give the towing companies a maximum distance they will be allowed to tow a vehicle under authority of 9A, i.e., 5 miles. This would then regionalize the towing to areas close to where vehicles were picked up. Thus a Bank for instance would only contract with a towing company whose storage yard was within this 5-mile radius (or who would contract with a Public Garage within this area to store the vehicles if they did not have one themselves).
4. Require towing companies to write down the miles they tow each vehicle and give a copy to each vehicle owner at the time the vehicle is picked up.
5. Mandate towing companies to reimburse and or deduct taxi fare from the towing and storage charges upon presentation of a taxi receipt for any vehicle towed beyond the authorized mileage limit.
6. Add a penalty to Traffic Code for towing beyond nearest garage or mileage limitation or for failing to reimburse or deduct taxi fare from towing and storage charges.
7. Add the provisions from Article 22658 (l) (3) requiring owner or agent of owner of private property to be physically present at time of towing and to contemporaneously sign a towing authorization. The form must clearly state the owners name, business address and business phone number, plus the time and date it was signed.
8. Provide that the towing company MUST give a copy of the signed authorization (at no cost) to the owner of the vehicle at the time the vehicle is picked up and the owner of the vehicle is to sign a receipt showing that he received it.
9. Provide a penalty AGAINST BOTH THE LAND OWNER AND THE TOWING COMPANY for failing to follow the procedures set out in 7 and 8 above plus provide that if the towing company cannot produce a signed authorization at the time the vehicle is being picked up they must immediately release the vehicle to the owner with no charges for towing or storage, and the owner still has the right to press for penalties.
10. Include the provision from 22658 (a) requiring that the landowner or his/her agent and not the tow truck operator make the call required to the Parking and Traffic Control office that the car is being towed and provide a penalty against both the landowner and the tow truck operator for violating this provision.
11. Add a provision stating that if a towing company tows vehicles 24 hours per day 7 days per week then they must provide the vehicle owner with access to the storage facility to pick up the vehicle 24 hours per day 7 days per week. This should also apply to the Auto Return Company for those cars towed to their Pier 70 location, which is currently open Monday through Friday and not on weekends. (In researching this story I stood in line and observed plus spoke with people who had their vehicles towed by Auto Return. I saw and talked with immigrants, students and working class people. A day without their car for these people could mean the loss of their job or the job of a family member who depends on that vehicle for a ride to work. If their car was towed on Friday and the storage lot is not open until Monday this could mean 3 days without a car. A day without their car could mean the difference between eating and not eating. Plus, do not forget the fees they must pay to retrieve the vehicle. Is this not punishment enough!
12. Provide that the penalties for violation of the above provisions are a misdemeanor punishable by both jail time and a fine PLUS the other monetary penalties authorized in favor of the vehicle owner.
13. Clarify the penalties authorized by the traffic code to state they are 4 times the towing “AND” storage charges instead of towing “or” storage charges.

Just how many cars are being towed every day in San Francisco? On July 07, 2004 SF Weekly published the Article “Don't Park There - The Unwritten Rules of Parking in San Francisco - A DOG BITES INVESTIGATION BY DAN SIEGLER AND RACHEL QUINN”. In this article the Authors make the following statement: “On a typical day in San Francisco, about 6,000 tickets are issued and 220 cars are towed -- and these numbers should be much higher.” They are much higher. This article dealt exclusively with vehicles being towed under authority of law, by Police officers and Parking Enforcement officers. It did not take into account the number of cars being towed every day from private parking lots or land. No one knows how many vehicles are towed daily from “private property”!
Now that you know your rights exercise them. If your vehicle was towed within the past 12 months and the law was violated in doing so you should now be able to recover your money plus additional penalties as provided under Article 22658 of the California Motor Vehicle Code and Articles 9 and 9A of the San Francisco Traffic Code.

If you agree with me that the Traffic Code needs to be amended as I suggest then please write, email or call the Mayor or your Supervisor. All of the appropriate contact information for emailing them or writing them or visiting them can be found either on-line or in your phone book. Good Luck!

The author is a retired attorney who spent the Summer of 2004 in San Francisco.