Over the last several years, California lawmakers have come to grips with how the increasingly pricey fines and penalties they’ve imposed for minor traffic and parking offenses can lead to financial ruin for low-income drivers. A ticket priced high enough to change the behavior of a more affluent person may simply be unaffordable for someone living paycheck to paycheck, and failing to pay the fine could cost such a person her license, her car, her job and even her freedom.
That’s beginning to change. In 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that prohibits courts from suspending driver’s licenses for failing to pay a traffic fine. Another new law requires cities to offer payment plans and to waive late fees for low-income drivers with unpaid parking tickets before asking the state Department of Motor Vehicles to put a hold on their vehicle registration.
Now, Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) wants to go even further. His proposal, Assembly Bill 516, would repeal cities’ authority to tow vehicles for having multiple unpaid parking tickets or long out-of-date registrations, or for being parked in the same spot for 72 hours.
Chiu, along with legal aid groups, argues that towing a poor person’s car for unpaid debt is as good as confiscating their car. In Los Angeles, it costs at least $300 to retrieve a vehicle, with the fee increasing each day the car spends in the impound yard. Plus, owners have to pay their outstanding tickets or registration fees before they can get their car back. The bill can be so high that some people never retrieve their vehicle, leaving it to be sold by the company that towed or impounded it, often for a fraction of the debt owed.
Towing isn’t the only enforcement tool for unpaid tickets, but it’s a powerful deterrent to those who willfully ignore the law.
In other words, towing poor peoples’ cars can leave them unable to get to work or take their kids to school. A car is often the key to financial stability, and can even serve as a home of last resort. (More than 16,000 people are living in their cars in L.A. County, according to a recent report.) So there is clearly a need to address towing as part of the larger effort to develop a more just and equitable system of resolving minor traffic and parking violations.
But in its current form, AB 516 isn’t the right solution. It’s a blanket prohibition on towing cars for nonpayment. There’s no differentiation between folks who truly cannot afford to pay their parking tickets or vehicle registration fees and scofflaws who choose not to pay them. Towing isn’t the only enforcement tool for unpaid tickets — cities could still seek to garnish wages or put a hold on tax refunds — but it’s a powerful deterrent to those who willfully ignore the law.
The bill would also prohibit local governments from towing vehicles that are left for days on their streets. The limits on how long cars can be parked are designed to deter people from hogging parking spots and to help officials distinguish parked cars from abandoned ones. Supporters of the bill argue that since enforcement is complaint-driven, these limits have a disproportionate effect on low-income people who have older, junkier cars or RVs that are more likely to spur complaints.
That may be true but, again, removing cities’ authority to tow any cars parked for 72 hours or more would let everyone off the hook, including such parking abusers as auto body shops that store junked cars curbside and travelers who leave their cars in neighborhoods near an airport to avoid parking fees. It would make it harder for cities to maintain the public right of way for the common good.
The goal behind AB 516 is a good one. California has created a system of exorbitant fees and penalties for minor traffic and parking violations that puts low-income drivers in a deep hole when they make a mistake. It’s patently unfair that a poor person could lose his or her vehicle because he or she couldn’t pay a handful of parking tickets or move their car in time to avoid a tow.
But the solution to the injustice isn’t to throw out the rules. The answer is to make the system more fair by offering low-income drivers payment plans for vehicle registration fees and parking tickets, and more humane by waiving fines when it’s clear that the penalties will push struggling people deeper into poverty.