Question: My car got towed while I was parked next to a coffee shop. From my seat inside, I saw the tow truck drive up and hitch itself to my car. I ran outside and told the driver I’d move the car. He said he wouldn’t stop, since he already started the tow. I started opening my car door, and he said I could get my stuff out, but only if I “moved faster than him”. Now my car is sitting in an impound lot, accumulating $80 per day in ransom fees. As a student, I can’t afford to pay the fee, and I’m worried I’ll lose my car. Is it legal for a tow truck to tow my car when I’m practically sitting inside of it?
— Melinda A., UC Davis student living in San Francisco, CA
It depends on whether you were on private property or public property. You’ve got a lot more rights when parked in a private parking lot that’s open to the public and free to park.
In a free, private lot open to the public, if you or your agent (a friend or family member) tell the driver to stop towing the car, the driver must immediately and unconditionally release your vehicle as long as it hasn’t been removed from the property yet. It’s against the law for them to refuse to release it when you’re standing right there in the parking lot, telling them to stop.
Also relevant: How long had you been parked there?
Because regardless of what the posted signs say, a private property owner can’t tow your car from a private lot open to the public unless it’s been sitting there for at least one hour.
There are a few exceptions. Among them, the lot must be free to park in. For example, the lots behind Jamba Juice, in front of the Vietnamese restaurant on First Street, or next to Bank of America in Davis are free to park in.
The lot near Baskin Robbins is not.
You could get towed from the Baskin Robbins lot immediately (if the signs say so), but you cannot be legally towed from the others unless you’ve been there for an hour. However, if you park in a disabled space, within 15 feet of a fire hydrant, in a fire lane or block the property’s entrance or exit, they don’t have to wait an hour to tow you.
But if you were parked in the parking lot of a residential apartment complex or in a hotel parking lot (in a space marked for a specific hotel room), you can be towed immediately.
And finally, the property owner cannot tow you unless a sign is posted saying that unauthorized vehicles will be towed at the owner’s expense. This sign, by the way, must measure at least 17 inches by 22 inches.
Penalties against the property owner are severe. Potentially, you can get a lot of money if you sue them for violations.
For towing your car when it’s been parked less than an hour, the property owner is liable for twice the towing and storage charges, under California Vehicle Code Section 22953(e). The towing company itself may be liable for four times the towing and storage charges if they don’t try to determine whether the property owner has complied with the one-hour requirement [according to] CVC Section 22658(l)(5). The company also owes you quadruple damages for failing to accept Visa, Discover, Mastercard or American Express cards as payment for the towing and storage.
You can sue either the tow company or the property owner in small claims court, which isn’t too difficult. (Avid Reader in downtown Davis has a great section on legal self-help books by a company called Nolo).
But if your car was parked on the public street and towed for having more than five parking tickets, you’re mostly screwed. But even then, you still have rights against the towing company if they damage your car, charge more than one day’s storage fees if you pick it up within 24 hours, fail to accept American Express or commit a half-dozen other common violations.
Check the California Vehicle Code on the DMV’s website for more information.
Question: I read your last column about Facebook’s Terms of Service, and it got me thinking. What’s to stop Facebook from making you agree to give them your first-born child?
— Carl R., Santa Clara, CA
A: The Thirteenth Amendment.
Seriously, though, slavery is unconstitutional. You cannot sell yourself into slavery, and you cannot sell other people into slavery. And not all contracts are valid, regardless of whether both parties agree to their terms. The courts will not enforce unconscionable contracts or contracts that violate state or federal law.
This applies to all contracts, not just online terms of service.
For example, though your landlord might think otherwise, that lease you signed cannot waive your right to a habitable apartment, which California courts have defined as one that includes a deadbolt lock and a functioning heater, among other things. If your apartment does not have a deadbolt or if the heater is broken, there’s a good argument you don’t owe rent until the problem is fixed.
You can check out caltenantlaw.com for more examples of unenforceable provisions in lease agreements.
Daniel is a Sacramento attorney, former Davis City Council candidate, and graduate of UC Davis School of Law. He’ll answer questions sent to him at email@example.com or tweeted to @governorwatts.