In July 2023, the California Court of Appeal held that warrantless tows of legally parked cars with unpaid parking tickets that present no threat to public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic are not permissible.  Coalition on Homelessness v. City & Cnty. of S.F. (2023) 2023 Cal. App. LEXIS 557 (7-21-23).  However, this Opinion does not prohibit the warrantless tows of any illegally parked vehicles, unregistered vehicles, or vehicles presenting some other immediate need for a tow.


Coalition on Homelessness (“Coalition”) challenged the constitutionality of the policy of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (“SFMTA”) of towing vehicles pursuant to Section 22651(i)(1) without first obtaining a warrant.  This policy provided for the towing of safely and lawfully parked vehicles without a warrant based solely on the accrual of unpaid parking tickets.

In September of 2021, the trial court denied Coalition’s petition for a writ of mandate and request for injunctive relief.  However, on July 21, 2023, the California Court of Appeal reversed this decision and remanded the case.

In so doing, the Court of Appeal noted that: (1) the impoundment of an automobile is a seizure within the Fourth Amendment; and (2) a seizure conducted without a warrant is per se unreasonable, subject only to a few exceptions, one of which being the “community caretaking exception.”

The SFMTA argued that the tows were reasonable under the vehicular “community caretaking” exception, which allowed for the exercise of control over cars which had become a “nuisance along the highway” and impact public safety.  The Court of Appeal rejected this argument under the theory that safely and legally parked cars presented no threat to public safety so as to invoke the “community caretaking” exception.

In addition, the Court of Appeal also rejected the SFMTA’s argument that towing cars that accrue numerous unpaid tickets deters parking law violation and that, if the policy was invalidated, individuals could ignore parking laws with impunity, thereby harming public health and safety.  Specifically, the Court noted, “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.[1]  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’ (South Dakota v. Opperman (1976) 428 U.S. 364, 369 [49 L. Ed. 2d 1000, 96 S. Ct. 3092] (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.”  (Emphasis added.)

The Court maintained that nothing in its opinion prohibited statutorily authorized warrantless tows of any illegally parked vehicles, unregistered vehicles, or vehicles presenting some other immediate need for a tow.


Based on this ruling, law enforcement agencies may wish to consider temporarily discontinuing warrantless seizures of legally parked cars that do not present a public safety risk until this issue has been fully adjudicated.  However, there is nothing in this case which prohibits law enforcement from continuing to tow cars that are illegally parked, that present a public safety risk, or where such towing is preceded by a warrant, if grounds exist for the issuance of a warrant.  You may wish to consult with your retained legal advisor for counsel on this issue in order to avoid liability exposure pursuant to the Fourth Amendment, which would bear attorney’s fees if there were an adverse finding.

As always, if you want to discuss any of this in greater detail, do not hesitate to contact James Touchstone at jrt@jones-mayer.com or by telephone at (714) 446-1400.

Information on www.jones-mayer.com is for general use and is not legal advice.  The mailing of this Client Alert Memorandum is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client-relationship.

[1] Although the parties and numerous cases refer to a “community caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement, recent decisions from the United States Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court have clarified that there is no recognized community caretaking exception outside the context of searches and seizures of vehicles. (See, post, pp. 10–11; Caniglia v. Strom (2021) 593 U.S. ___ [209 L. Ed. 2d 604, 141 S.Ct. 1596] (Caniglia); People v. Ovieda (2019) 7 Cal.5th 1034 [250 Cal. Rptr. 3d 754, 446 P.3d 262] (Ovieda).)