A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the city of San Francisco to return a towed car to a homeless man who couldn't afford to pay the parking tickets he received while working as a food delivery driver.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White said Sean Kayode had raised "serious questions" about whether the March 5 towing of his car because of unpaid parking tickets violated the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures.
White wrote that in a situation in which a car owner can't afford to pay overdue parking tickets, "it is not clear...that seizure is reasonable in an effort to secure repayment of the debt owed."
The judge issued a preliminary injunction requiring return of the car. The order will remain in effect until there is a full trial on a lawsuit filed by Kayode, 52, and James Smith, 64, whose car was towed on Dec. 28, 2017.
Kayode's car was towed from a street-cleaning zone outside a homeless shelter where he was staying. In the previous 10 months, he had received about 30 parking tickets and had paid some but not all of them.
A state law allows local authorities to tow a car whose owner has five or more unpaid parking tickets for at least three weeks. The local city or county may keep the car until all fines and fees are paid.
At the time Kayode asked for the injunction, he would have had to pay more than $11,000 in towing and storage costs to get his car back, according to the ruling.
Although the preliminary injunction applies only to Kayode, his lawyers said it could set a precedent for other low-income and indigent people in similar situations.
"We hope this opinion will induce the city to reconsider its towing policy and work with us to develop one that is constitutional and does not punish people for being poor," said Eliza Della-Piana, legal director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil rights.
John Cote, a spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, said, "We're very sympathetic to Mr. Kayode being homeless. Homelessness is something the City works tirelessly to counter every day. At the same time, homeless or not, if you have a car and park it, you have to park it legally."
Cote said the city continues to "consider policies to minimize fees and unintended consequences for vulnerable populations."
He noted that the city's Municipal Transportation Agency earlier this year reduced towing fees for low-income people. The MTA also offers payment alternatives in which car owners can do community service to pay for parking tickets or can agree on a monthly payment plan, Cote said.