Not that long ago a friend got into a jam and had her car towed. Since it was also her first day of work at a new job, I loaned her my car while I headed to the tow yard to spring hers. Since the Santa Ana tow yard was just a few miles from home, I walked. Having a lot of time to think while on this walk, I realized how incredibly fortunate she was. She had someone close by who could get her a loaner car for free. She had enough money to pay $300 in towing and storage fees to get the car back. And she had a friend (me) with the time to take care of all this on the day it happened, because storage fees can rise prohibitively high after a surprisingly small number of days in the tow lot.
An attempt to ease the impacts of auto towing on poor and homeless people is Assembly Bill 516, authored by Assembly member David Chiu (D-San Francisco). The bill makes it more difficult for police or local public agencies to make what Chiu’s office calls “poverty related tows”–for five or more unpaid parking tickets or traffic violations, outdated car registration, or parking legally on a public street for more than 72 hours. It also prohibits the placement of a boot on cars that have five or more parking tickets or traffic violations.
“If you can’t afford to pay your parking tickets or car registration, or afford private parking, you can’t afford hundreds or thousands of dollars to get your car out of a tow yard,” Chiu said about the bill, according to a June Senate Committee on Transportation staff report. “This results in low-income Californians losing their cars, their ability to get work, their jobs, and even their shelter.”
According to the 2019 report Towed into Debt, published by the Western Center on Law and Poverty in Los Angeles (which also sponsored AB 516), an analysis of eight California cities showed that a quarter of all tows were due to the three reasons outlined by Chiu. What’s more, the report stated that cars towed for these reasons are two to six times more likely to be sold at a lien sale than cars towed for other reasons.
Nearly two dozen public interest organizations have already come out in favor of AB 516, including the American Civil Liberties Union of California.
“Poverty-related tows aren’t just unfair, they’re ineffective,” states an ACLU Southern California email sent out on June 20. “Cities, counties and the state cannot collect on unpaid parking tickets from people who are unable to afford these costs, and less so if the government seizes their only means of getting to work.”
A few cities, two downtown associations and the League of California Cities oppose AB 516, mostly because it takes away some of their enforcement options.
“The League of California Cities regretfully remains Opposed to AB 516, a measure that would eliminate the ability for cities and law enforcement to adequately enforce state and local vehicle violations, as amended,” League Legislative Representative Rony Berdugo wrote to Senate Transportation Committee Chairperson Jim Beall (D-San Jose) on June 19. “AB 516 also harms the ability for cities to prevent the improper storage of private vehicles on public streets, which can create and/or exacerbate blight and public safety hazards, especially in disadvantaged communities.”
The City of Laguna Beach also opposes the bill. In a June 3 letter to Rep. Chiu, Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen dismissed the bill as “unnecessary regulations” that take a “broad, sweeping approach” that would “impede the ability of cities to take basic public safety actions to protect our communities.”
But public safety wasn’t all that concerned Whalen. “Laguna Beach receives over six million visitors annually,” Whalen wrote. “The City needs to be able to enforce parking restrictions to maintain coastal access.”
In any case, AB 516 passed the Assembly on May 13 with 49 ayes and just 11 nayes. The Orange County Assembly contingent was far more divided. though not in the way you might think. It wasn’t surprising to see Republican Philip Chen (R-Brea) vote against it, but Steven Choi (R-Irvine) and Tyler Diep (R-Huntington Beach) voted for the bill (Republican William Brough, representing San Juan Capistrano, abstained). On the Democratic side, Tom Daly (D-Anaheim) and Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) voted for approval, while Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach) voted no.
“The cities I represent asked me to vote against AB 516 because it harms their ability to protect the public right of way,” said Petrie-Norris, through a spokesperson.
The Senate Committee on Transportation will hold a hearing on AB 516 at 1:30 p.m. today.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.