Having your car towed can be an incredibly frustrating and stressful experience. Even worse, it’s difficult for most people to understand the laws and regulations of how long you can park your vehicle before police or towing companies can legally remove it.
A car has to be parked for at least 72 hours before it can be towed. However, this is highly variable and depends on state and local laws and whether the owner parks the car on a city street or private property.
For the rest of this article, I’ll give you a more detailed explanation of the factors that can lead to your car being towed, how to prevent towing from occurring, and what legal recourse might be available.
When Will a Parked Car Be Towed?
There’s no universal law regarding parked cars that’ll apply to all areas. That said, there are several broad rules to keep in mind when figuring out what situations will likely lead to a towed car.
A parked car will be towed when they violate local laws or have caused repeated police complaints. In some cases, cars may fall victim to illegal towing by predatory towing businesses or an error by law enforcement.
Let’s take a deeper dive into potential scenarios where police or tow trucks may tow your car and methods you can use to prevent towing.
State and Local Laws on Towing Parked Cars
Local, city, and state laws for parked cars can vary significantly from one area to another. As a result, you’ll need to review local ordinances if you want to be sure that your car is parked legally and won’t be subject to towing.
While some common legal standards exist, these won’t hold in every jurisdiction.
If an owner parks a car on a public street and doesn’t violate any local regulations, legal towing won’t occur. However, it’s essential to know the legal time limit in your locality. Typically, you can leave your car parked on a public street for up to 72 hours, but this isn’t always the case.
Police Response to Illegally Parked Cars
When police receive complaints about a parked car, they may decide to tow it. This situation is more likely to come about when the owner has parked the vehicle for longer than 72 hours.
Another risk factor is if the car appears to have been abandoned by its owner.
Police officers often leave a warning note before towing a car. These notes generally give the vehicle’s owner a limited time frame (most commonly, 24 hours) to move the vehicle before towing it. Once the police have towed the vehicle, they’ll most likely impound it.
From there, the owner will have to go through the official legal channels to return the car to their possession.
However, if the owner moves the car daily, but then parks it in the same spot, this situation can get complicated, as it’s not been technically abandoned.
Will a Note Keep Your Car From Being Towed?
Once they see a police-issued warning note, many vehicle owners will leave their own note to attempt to convince authorities or towing companies to let the car remain parked for longer.
Is this an effective prevention strategy?
Leaving a note will usually not keep your car from being towed. Police generally have no legal obligation to respect the message and will likely tow the vehicle without granting any additional time to the vehicle’s owner, especially if there have been repeated complaints about the car.
Cars with an owner’s note on them are most commonly towed and impounded by the deadline initially given by the warning note.
In some jurisdictions, however, even several complaints will not prompt the police to have the vehicle towed if it belongs to those with who the police play favorites. Granted, this usually happens in small towns, and not so much in larger cities.
How Can You Get a Towed Car Back?
If the police or a tow company remove your car, you may be at a loss as to how you can get it back into your ownership. Fortunately, there are some solutions you can try.
You can get a towed car back by paying storage and impoundment fees, which are often extremely high and may cost more than the vehicle’s value. Alternatively, you can request that the police or storage business release your car and petition for a court order if they refuse.
Next, I’ll give a more in-depth overview of laws regarding the towing of parked vehicles and how you can take steps to get a towed or impounded car returned to you.
Predatory Towing Laws
Many states and cities have specific regulations to prevent predatory or illegal towing of a parked car.
Predatory towing most commonly occurs when a towing company receives a tip that a car is parked illegally on private property. Following the towing of the vehicle, the company will then demand that the owner pay fees for storage and the car’s towing.
However, a car’s owner can often take action to prevent this.
For example, under some jurisdictions, an owner can demand that the towing truck release their car immediately if it’s still on private property.
Additionally, an owner can sometimes dispute any damages done to the car in the process of its towing or impounding. Likewise, when reviewing your vehicle’s towing, it’s recommended that you check charges for any illegal fees or penalties.
Unfortunately, many states have little to no laws protecting a vehicle’s owner from predatory towing, according to U.S. PIRG. Nonetheless, it’s still worth checking your jurisdiction’s vehicle and parking codes to see if you have legal recourse to prevent a towing truck from seizing your car.
What if the Police Tow Your Car?
In many cases, police themselves will tow a parked car rather than a private tow truck. What steps should you take in that scenario?
If the police tow your car, you should immediately ask for its release. Even if they don’t grant this release, it often reduces storage costs for the vehicle and provides additional legal protection if you go on to dispute your car’s towing to a court.
If a lot (private or used directly by law enforcement) refuses to release your vehicle, you should attempt to get a court order to force the lot to transfer the car into your possession.
The sooner you request your car be released from its lot, the better, as police and courts will see this as recorded evidence that you attempted to prevent unnecessary storage fees.
While requesting release or obtaining a court order is not guaranteed to lead to your vehicle’s release, it might reduce or eliminate storage fees and other financial penalties you would otherwise be required to pay.
Retrieving Items From a Towed Car
Depending on what state, county, or city you reside in, it may be possible to have items in your towed or impounded vehicle returned to you. For example, in Minnesota, a towed vehicle’s owners can have any possessions in their car returned to them if they fall under a low-income category.
Both Consumer Action and U.S. PIRG advocate that all jurisdictions protect vehicle owners’ rights to have possessions in their towed car returned to them by the police or impound lot.
However, many states and cities do not have such legal protections.
Having your parked car towed is always a highly uncomfortable experience, and locally inconsistent and often complex laws tend to worsen the issue.
That said, there are still several steps you can take to prevent your car from being towed or have it returned to your possession. The most effective method is to keep the vehicle parked within your jurisdiction’s legal time limit, which is most likely 72 hours.
It’s also worth checking your state or city’s local vehicle codes, as it’s sometimes possible to request a storage lot to release your towed car without paying for high costs.
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