Lawyer: Thousands of Legally Parked S.F. Cars Dubiously Towed

Categories: Law & Order
Thumbnail image for Tow Truck Larry Cable Guy.jpg
Back off, pal!
Last week we reported on San Francisco parking celebrity John J. Riley, who filed a class-action suit claiming the city improperly towed his car -- and legions of others. The crux of the case is this: The city claims it has the right to haul off legally parked private vehicles after several days while Riley and his lawyer say they can't.

Our Immediate Disclosure Request to the Municipal Transportation Authority to determine just how many lawfully parked cars have been towed in this city has not yet been fulfilled. But Riley -- a retired lawyer, not surprisingly -- undertook his own Freedom of Information Act request before he filed suit. And, according to data provided by the city, 1,641 legally parked cars were towed in 2008 and 1,246 were swept away last year.

"A lot of people have to schlep downtown to pay the ticket and then a long ways off to the tow lot to pay the money," says Riley's attorney, Deborah England. "It's a really huge burden on people. And, she believes, illegal. If one puts the middle-of-the-road figure of $400 for every lawfully parked car the city towed off -- Rily was out nearly $1,000 -- the city could be looking at more than $1 million in refunds.
Here's a quick summation of his contention of why Riley contends San Francisco's towing policy is bunk:

In letters to Riley, the city cited two justifications for towing his legally parked car after 72 hours: A city ordinance and a section of the state vehicle code allowing for a vehicle to be towed when it "is parked or left standing upon a highway for 72 or more consecutive hours in violation of a local ordinance authorizing such removal."

The crux of Riley's argument, however, is that no such ordinance exists here in San Francisco. The aforementioned section of the city's Municipal Transportation Code he claims city officials cited to him is Section 11.1 (a)(9); this section outlines the myriad justifications for removing a private citizen's car from city streets. But the very first clause begins "when any legally required signage is posted giving notice..." The suit maintains that no signage "regarding the towing of vehicles bearing residential parking permit stickers" was present on the block Riley was parked on -- and, what's more, "no such signage was posted within the city limits of San Francisco."

As the suit sums it up, "Plaintiff alleges that Defendant" -- that'd be the city -- "has a policy practice and custom of towing ... otherwise legally parked vehicles without proper notice and legal authority to do so." Riley's complaint is a class-action suit as he believes -- logically -- that he was not the only person whose car was towed due to a policy he claims is legally problematic.
Even though the city has since changed its policy from waiting 72 hours to a week before hauling off legally parked cars, England told SF Weekly that doesn't alter her case: "The duration isn't the issue. The problem is, they don't provide notice," she said. "The heart of the problem is the city is essentially taking people's property without due notice. Under state law, signage is required."

The city has not yet responded to Riley's suit.

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