The State of California outlines specific rules concerning when and where local law enforcement can legally tow and impound your vehicle. These laws are embodied in California Vehicle Code 22651 VC.
If your vehicle or situation meets the legal criteria, law enforcement can tow it away without prior warning and store it in an impound lot. You will be responsible for paying the costs associated with towing and storing your car before the vehicle is released back to you.
This law authorizes cars to be towed and impounded if the driver gets a driving under the influence (DUI), parks in a handicapped or bus zone space, has at least five unpaid parking tickets, parks illegally on private property or any place where they are impeding traffic.
The owner of private property can legally call a tow truck to have a vehicle on its property hauled away without notifying the vehicle owner or local police.
VC 22651 says, “A peace officer… who is engaged in directing traffic or enforcing parking laws and regulations of a city, county, or jurisdiction of a state agency in which a vehicle is located, may remove a vehicle… in which the officer or employee may act, under the certain circumstances….”
The statute lists several circumstances, including obstruction of traffic, parked in a manner creating a hazard, reporting as stolen, blocking the entrance to a driveway, preventing access to firefighting equipment, the driver being arrested, and other conditions. The following is a brief overview of these rules.
When Can an Officer Have My Vehicle Towed and Impounded?
VC 22651 includes a relatively long list of situations where law enforcement can legally tow and impound your vehicle. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Obstructing traffic. If you park or abandon your car in a location where it directly obstructs the normal flow of traffic or creates a safety hazard, the police can have it removed.
- Blocking a driveway. If you park in such a way that you're blocking a private driveway, police can tow it away.
- Blocking a fire hydrant. There is generally no parking allowed in front of fire hydrants, so firefighters can access them. Police have the right to tow it.
- No registration/expired registration. If your vehicle registration is expired by more than six months, if your car's license plates are missing, or if your license or registration is nonexistent or found to be fake—all of these are grounds for towing and impounding a vehicle.
- Illegal parking in handicapped spots. If you park in a parking spot reserved for handicapped drivers (recognizable by the blue wheelchair icon) and you don't have proper tags authorizing you to park there, the police may tow your vehicle to clear the spot for authorized drivers.
- Violating a 72-hour ordinance. Some municipalities have parking rules that forbid parking in the same place for more than 72 consecutive hours (i.e., three full days). So if you leave your car parked in one of these places for more than three days, don't be surprised to find it towed away.
- Unlicensed drivers/drivers with suspended licenses. If you are caught by police driving without a valid license or if your license has been suspended or revoked, an officer may tow and impound your car on the spot.
- Scene of an accident. If your car is involved in a crash and you are too injured or incapacitated to drive, police may have your vehicle removed from the scene.
- Five or more parking violations. If you have five or more unpaid parking violations, police are authorized to tow and impound your vehicle as payment of the debt.
- Arrested. If you're pulled over by law enforcement and arrested (for example, at a DUI sobriety checkpoint), police will tow and impound your vehicle.
- Unlicensed car dealer. Any vehicle offered for sale by an unlicensed dealer could get towed away.
- Car accident. If the driver was hospitalized or suffered a serious injury, they could not drive their vehicle.
Will My Vehicle Be Towed Over a Parking Violation?
In most cases, no. If you're illegally parked, law enforcement will usually leave a citation on a visible area of your vehicle, letting you know what you owe and how to pay. The exceptions to this rule include the following:
- If there is a visible warning posted that parking violators will be towed;
- If your vehicle is obstructing traffic or causing a safety concern;
- If it has been left for more than 72 hours (in zones where the 72-hour rule applies); or
- If law enforcement discovers you have five or more previous unpaid parking tickets.
What Happens If My Vehicle is Towed?
If police opt to tow your vehicle, it will be moved to the local police or sheriff's department impound lot. If you need to know where the impound lot is located, you'll need to call the local police to find out where it is.
When you arrive to pick up your vehicle, you'll need to bring the following:
- Your driver's license;
- Proof of registration;
- Proof of insurance; and
- Any towing/impound fees you need to pay.
How Much Time am I Given to Reclaim My Vehicle?
Some parking spaces have posted signs that warn about towing. Further, the parking ticket contains a notice that the police can call a tow company on repeat offenders.
However, police will not attempt to notify drivers before getting a towing company to impound the vehicle. In addition, as noted, private property owners can have vehicles towed from their property without notice.
Under California law, the impound lot will only hold your vehicle for a maximum of 30 calendar days. If you don't claim your car by then, police will sell the vehicle at auction.
In addition, some lots charge fees by the day, so the longer you wait to collect your car, the higher your fees may be. Therefore, it would be best if you tried to reclaim your vehicle from the impound lot as soon as possible.
Towing charges will depend on the impound location. Some of the standard fees include the towing fee, daily storage fee, administrative fee, and transfer charge fee. Many impound lots will sell unclaimed cars at an auction.
If you need additional information about the vehicle towing laws in California, contact us to review the case details and legal options. The California criminal defense lawyers at Eisner Gorin LLP are in Los Angeles.