Although CA State regulates private property towing, it gives each city the freedom to write more restrictive municipal codes.  Some cities require the properties to pay for permits to allow them to tow vehicle using permitted tow companies, who also pay for their permits.  Even before the car is towed, the cost for the private property tow is adding up in the way of permits and license fees to the city.  It is not fair to blame the property manager or the tow company for all of the outrageous fees to claim a vehicle, but it is fair to say the vehicle driver controls the outcome from where they park their car.

When your car is towed from private property, the question shouldn’t be Who towed my car?, but rather What was my violation of property rules? Towing companies typically aren’t looking for ways to irritate or burden innocent drivers but are simply doing their job and following the rules. Knowing the law on towing rights and restrictions can help make parking easier for both you and your HOA’s members.

Before you get where you are going, make sure you can answer the following questions to relieve your parking troubles:

  • Is public parking is available or will it be metered street parking?
  • Is the parking lot public, commercial or residential?
  • What is the locally required language for the signage for warning signs on private lots?
  • Are parking violations going to be enforceable?
  • What cost of stress, inconvenience and money will you incur if the vehicle is not properly parked? 

City Municipal Codes Raise Towing Costs

Although the state of California regulates private property towing, it gives each city the freedom to write more restrictive municipal codes, which often leads to higher towing costs from permit fees.  Lots of cities require properties to pay for permits in order to tow a vehicle using permitted tow companies, companies who also must pay for their own permits. 

Therefore, even before a car is towed, the cost is already high from the permits and licensing fee paid to the city. It is not fair to blame the property manager or the tow company for all of the outrageous fees to claim a vehicle, but it is fair to say the vehicle driver controls the outcome from where they park their car.

What is the first thing the vehicle driver needs to watch for?

Parking in an unfamiliar town may have municipal codes regulating different warning signs than what you may be used to seeing on private property.  Hayward requires signs that say “Public Parking Prohibited”, whereas San Jose requires signs to say, “Restricted Parking 24 Hours a Day”. 

What California Regulates Versus What the Cities Control

State Level City Level
Signs at the entrance or exit of the private property to be not less than 17” by 22 Language used on signs
Lettering not less than 1” in height Size of lettering above 1”
Warning signs need to be facing the traffic from the public street onto private property Additional signs throughout the property may or may not be required

The rules of the road

If the sign is vandalized, behind bushes, or removed, your recourse is to complain to property management, the local police department and/or take the property owner to Small Claims Court.  Whatever the problem is, it will never become a theft or wrongful tow as long as the proper permits and licenses were obtained by the property and tow company.  The small claims court judge may not rule in the favor of the vehicle owner for inconsistences with vandalized covered or removed signage, because if the driver lives at or frequents access to the property, they should have known the property rules, or could have obtained the property rules before they were towed.  The “rule of the road” is that you must know the parking rules before you park your car.

If you are parking on…

  • Commercial property that is open to the public free of cost, you have one hour to obtain the rules for parking and then you can move your vehicle, accordingly. 
  • Multifamily property, such as apartments, common interest developments (CID), or hotels, you may live at or frequent that property to visit someone, who is responsible to tell you where to park, or go to the office and ask the rules. 
  • Fee parking areas, always pay the fee as directed.
  • Guarded property, follow the directions of the security.

Always follow the law for fire lanes and handicap stalls.  For the most part, police departments will not take the time to enforce fire lane or handicap violations on private property, but they can.  If you get towed by the private property tow company without a police violation, consider it a favor, they can request the police to issue a citation before they tow the vehicle which adds to the cost to claim the vehicle.  If you have a driver’s license, you already know you cannot restrict, stop or park in a fire lane, and you cannot park in the handicap stall without a valid handicap placard mounted visible from outside the vehicle.  Your argument that you only parked there a second, or you just dropped off the groceries, doesn’t help; the law is clear and if the fire lanes are not maintained by property management, the city can fine the property owner after a few complaints.  Not even the property manager can avoid enforcing these laws.

Stolen, Impounded, or Repossessed

Once you find your vehicle is gone from where you left it, there are only three options for where it is; it was stolen, repossessed, or impounded by police or private property for parking violations.  Your immediate response requires that you call the local police or sheriff department.  If the vehicle was impounded, they will be happy to respond with who took the vehicle, and where it is being stored; or they will have you complete a stolen vehicle report. State law requires the tow company or property owner to report the impound within one hour of removal from private property, and some cities, such as San Jose, require the vehicle to be reported within 30 minutes.  If impounded, it is necessary to go or call the storage yard to find out the requirement to claim the vehicle.  If it was impounded by police or repossessed, you will need to pay release fees to the police or sheriff department,  If it was impounded by private property, you need to know their regular working hours to claim your vehicle, and if there are additional “Gate Fees” for afterhours releases, ask what those fees will be.  Whenever you are claiming a vehicle, the requirements will be the same; you need to show proof of ownership, such as current registration, and/or current insurance, and you must have current government photo identification, in person.  It is logical they cannot release the vehicle to anyone other than the vehicle owner or agent (proof of agency would need to be notarized) in person.  The fees are regulated and will not be negotiable; the fees will be posted in the office where you claim your vehicle, which may change between towns and/or tow companies.

Towing the line

Can I ever park my car and not be subject to towing?  Yes, but this is a slippery slope, and it is rarely worth the stress between the time you park your vehicle and when you return to find it still there, or maybe not there.  You may be right, but was it worth it?  Even if it was improperly towed and you get your money back, is it worth the time, inconvenience, lost time, and stress?  You, as a normal citizen, may not have the opportunity to know in advance if the property and tow company are properly licensed and/or permitted; however, after you are towed, and at the impound yard, you have the opportunity to look at the required postings for permits and licenses, along with the regulated fees for that tow company.  The typical driver has only a narrow opportunity to investigate and determine if the property has the proper signage at the entrance and exits to the property.  However, if the lettering is not 1” (minimum), or on a sign 17” by 22”, you may want to check local municipal codes for local variations.  If the sign is vandalized, covered by shrubbery, or removed, chances are you could still be towed, and even if you get your car back free, you still have the inconvenience, loss of time, and stress. 

 No property owner wants to tow your car, but they are required to keep the fire lane cleared, or be fined.   

Towing and storage fees are expensive, but can be avoided with simple observations of the signage, from where you enter from public parking, to asking the security, shop owner, homeowner or tenant.  State law, CVC 22658(l)(1)(C)(ii) does not allow the release of the name of the person who towed your car from residential property, for fear of retaliation from the person who got their vehicle towed.  It will not be car theft, or wrongful tow, because the CA law holds the property management and tower harmless beyond certain limitations.  No property owner wants to tow your car, but they are required to keep the fire lane cleared, or be fined, and if they don’t enforce parking rules, people with extra vehicles store them in open stalls, or people park closer to their unit regardless of parking permits.  It is illegal for the tow company to distribute any of the fees back to security or property management, so property management and security have no vested interest in the tow, other than controlling the problems with cars by enforcing their property rights with properly licensed, permitted and insured tow companies.  

Burt Dean is the CFO of Rebello’s Towing Service. Previously, he owned an association management company. Burt has been a member and frequent contributor to ECHO for many years.