Free Parking for the Homeless in CA

Did you know that homeless people enjoy a constitutional right to free parking? That’s the main takeaway from a California Court of Appeals opinion issued Friday that ruled cities that tow cars with five or more unpaid parking tickets violate the 4th Amendment’s prohibition of search and seizure without a warrant.

The Coalition on Homelessness sued the City and County of San Francisco seeking an injunction against towing scofflaw cars that piled up parking tickets, and the trial court had denied the petition. But the Court of Appeals reversed, because “appellant [Coalition on Homelessness] presented declarations regarding the severe impacts of vehicle tows on unhoused San Francisco residents.”

More from the court:

The principal issue on appeal is whether the challenged warrantless tows are permissible under the vehicular community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. We conclude respondents have not shown that legally parked cars with unpaid parking tickets that present no threat to “public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic” (S. Dakota v. Opperman (1976) 428 U.S. 364, 369 (Opperman)) may be towed under that exception. In particular, we reject respondents’ argument that their interest in deterring parking violations and nonpayment of parking fines justifies warrantless tows under the vehicular community caretaking exception. Such deterrence does not justify warrantless tows of lawfully registered and lawfully parked vehicles. We also reject the proposition that the tows at issue may be justified by analogy to warrantless property seizures in the forfeiture context.

San Francisco and other California jurisdictions have actually been pretty lax in towing vehicles inhabited by homeless people (or any other scofflaw vehicles), but now they will have to get a warrant from a judge to tow any such car, which means in practice that almost no cars will be towed if they are parked in an otherwise legal spot on the street—expired meter or not. San Francisco has been denied even this minimal tool to restrain the out-of-control social disorder in its streets. The homeless who have vehicles now essentially enjoy free parking.

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