July 27, 2023

MTO Secures Historic Appellate Ruling to End “Poverty Tows” Throughout California

On July 21, 2023, the California Court of Appeal issued a unanimous, published decision reversing the trial court and finding that San Francisco’s policy and practice of seizing lawfully and safely parked vehicles without a warrant solely on the basis of unpaid parking tickets violates the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution as well as the California Constitution. The Court rejected the city’s argument that an exception to the warrant requirement applies to authorize those tows.

The Court’s decision is a victory for low-income Californians, who often cannot afford to pay their parking tickets before their vehicles are summarily seized.  “Poverty tows” are common across California. When cities seize vehicles solely for unpaid parking tickets, the owners can lose their ability to maintain employment, resulting in a counter-productive cycle of poverty that further ensures tickets are never paid. The towing process also adds additional administrative charges that owners cannot pay, meaning a seizure typically leads to the loss of the vehicle altogether. The practice also makes no sense: cities lose money on these tows, and they have other ways of collecting parking ticket debt without warrantless seizures of essential property, such as wage garnishment or negotiated payment plans.  While the litigation involved San Francisco’s seizure practices, the opinion’s constitutional analysis will apply across the state.  The Court of Appeal’s decision will lead to a fairer parking ticket regime in San Francisco and across California and will protect the constitutional rights of all California residents against unlawful, warrantless seizures.

MTO’s Max Rosen and Rohit Singla pursued this appeal on behalf of the Coalition on Homelessness, along with the firm’s co-counsel, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF) and Bay Area Legal Aid

“We are proud to contribute to this historic decision and are grateful that LCCR, BayLegal, and the Coalition trusted us with the appeal,” said Max Rosen, who argued in the Court of Appeal. “The Court’s ruling will improve the lives of Californians, which is the most we can hope for from legal advocacy."

Read more about the appellate ruling.

About MTO’s Pro Bono Practice

Contributing to the community through pro bono work and other forms of volunteerism is a core tenet of the culture at Munger, Tolles & Olson. The firm was one of the charter signatories to the American Bar Association’s pro bono challenge and consistently devotes more than three percent of all attorney time to delivering needed pro bono legal assistance. We are proud to be one of the select group of firms to have received the ABA’s coveted Pro Bono Publico Award.

Learn more about our pro bono practice.