By Alan Pentico, San Diego County Apartment Association
August 17, 2015 (San Diego’s East County) - Parking is a scarce and valuable commodity in much of urban San Diego. Many property owners use towing as a tool to keep off-street parking available for tenants and their guests. But the right to tow is not unlimited. California law gives vehicle owners rights and protections against unreasonable and predatory towing. To protect yourself from the steep cost of retrieving a towed vehicle, make sure you’re familiar with the basic tenets of towing law in California.
Who can authorize a tow?
Only the property owner or an authorized representative of the property owner (such as a manager or a private security company) may authorize a tow on private property.
On small properties (15 residential units or fewer) where there is no on-site manager, the owner may give tenants the authority to tow vehicles parked in their assigned space if specified in the owner’s contract with the towing company. Owners and managers typically include parking and towing policies in the rental agreement, so check your rental agreement or contact the manager if you are unsure of the rules where you live.
When can a vehicle be towed?
If the offending vehicle is parked at a single-family residence, it may be towed without notice.
If the offending vehicle is parked at a multi-family residence where no parking rules are posted, it may be towed 96 hours after being issued a notice of parking violation.
If the offending vehicle is parked at a multi-family residence in violation of posted parking rules, it may be towed.
Parking rules must be posted on signs in plain view at all entrances to the property. The signs must measure at least 17 inches by 22 inches, and the lettering on the signs must be at least one inch in height. The sign must state that public parking is prohibited and that vehicles may be removed at the owner’s expense. The sign must also include the telephone number of the local law enforcement agency as well as the name and contact information of each towing company that has a written towing authorization agreement with the property owner.
What happens if there’s a dispute?
If you return to your vehicle while it is in the process of being towed, you have a right to reclaim it immediately as long as it is still on private property. If, when you arrive, your vehicle has already been loaded onto the tow truck but has not left the property, the tow truck operator may charge you for the cost of loading and unloading the vehicle. While they can also request half of the full tow fee, they can’t demand it.
It is against the law for a towing operator to try to prevent you from reclaiming your vehicle by partially hooking it up to the truck and then driving the truck off the property to finish the process.
The law does not allow companies to tow a vehicle to a yard more than a 10-mile radius from the vehicle’s original location. Towing rates are regulated by the state, and towing companies are required to charge reasonable fees according to limits defined in state law.
Towing companies, property owners and management companies are subject to criminal penalties — including the cost of towing and fines of up to $2,500 — if they violate the requirements of the law. Vehicle owners may also seek damages in civil court.
With an understanding of the law as well as a keen eye for posted “no parking” signs, you can be sure to avoid an expensive tow. For more information, consult Section 22658(a) of the California Vehicle Code.
—Alan Pentico is Executive Director of the San Diego County Apartment Association.