Question: When owners' and guests' vehicles are towed, our association board and management company personnel justify their actions by telling owners: "It's the law." But they won't give us the law they refer to. Are there any penalties against management and boards for illegally or indiscriminately towing our cars, and what is the law?
Answer: Boards and management companies must be reasonable, use good judgment and exhibit common sense in decision-making processes — that includes proper application of the California Vehicle Code. Merely because an association "may" remove a vehicle does not necessarily mean it "should." Stranding owners just because an association can doesn't further its best interests. Nor does turning a blind eye, such as when a third party's vehicle prevents another owner's ingress and egress, serve a legitimate association purpose.
Towing vehicles parked within a residential common interest development is subject to the association's governing documents and to applicable law. "Governing documents" include whatever rules a board may have created about parking. Civil Code section 4350 provides requirements for validity and enforceability of such rules. In particular, each rule must be within the board's authority (by law, declaration, articles of incorporation or association bylaws); must be in writing and adopted, amended or repealed in good faith; must be reasonable and must not conflict with the law and governing documents.
The Vehicle Code imposes strict requirements for towing and explicit penalties for failure to comply. Overarching among statutes applicable to associations is Vehicle Code section 22953(a), where an employee or agent shall not tow or remove, or cause the towing or removal, of a vehicle within one hour — that is, the first hour — of it being parked. A person who violates that section is civilly liable to the vehicle's owner for two times the towing and storage charges. An exception is that a vehicle may be removed immediately after parking within 15 feet of a fire hydrant, in a fire lane, in a manner that interferes with an entrance to or an exit from private property or in a parking space legally designated for disabled persons.
Moreover, a towing company shall not commence removal of a vehicle from a common interest development without first obtaining the written authorization from an employee, agent of the association or board director who shall be present at the time of removal and verify the alleged violation, according to Vehicle Code section 22658(l)(1)(A).
Under Vehicle Code section 22658(a), the association may cause the removal to a storage facility of a vehicle parked on the property that meets any one of the following circumstances:
•Vehicle is parked in violation of signs displayed in plain view at all property entrances prohibiting public parking. The signs must indicate that vehicles will be removed at owner's expense. Signs must contain phone numbers for local traffic law enforcement as well as names and telephone numbers of each company that may tow. Such companies must have a written towing authorization agreement with the association.
•Vehicle has been issued a notice of parking violation and 96 hours have elapsed since notice issuance.
•Vehicle is on private property and lacks an engine, transmission, tires, doors, windshield or any other major part necessary to operate safely on the highways, the association has notified local traffic law enforcement and 24 hours have elapsed since that notification.
Under Vehicle Code section 22658(b), if the tow truck operator removing the vehicle knows or is able to determine the name and address of the vehicle's registered owner, he shall immediately give written notice to the owner of the fact of removal, grounds for removal and the place to which the vehicle has been removed.
If the tow truck operator can't determine the name of the owner or for any other reason is unable to give the owner notice, the tow truck operator shall, as required by Vehicle Code section 22853(c), notify the Department of Justice Stolen Vehicle System.
The owner may recover for any damage to the vehicle resulting from any intentional or negligent act of a person causing the removal of, or removing, the vehicle, under Vehicle Code section 22658(d).
Boards and managers should understand the risks of improper towing.
Failure to follow the vehicle-removal rules discussed above, spelled out in Vehicle Code section 22658(a)(1), (2) or (3), or to state the grounds for the removal of the vehicle if requested by the vehicle owner as required by Section 22658(f), makes the association causing the vehicle's removal liable for double the storage or towing charges. That provision can be found in Vehicle Code section 22658(e)(1).
Additionally, the association or its agent who causes removal of a parked vehicle is guilty of an infraction, punishable by a fine of $1,000, if there is failure to comply with Vehicle Code section 22658(l)(1)(A), which details the requirements for written authorization.