Everything You Need to Know About California Towing Laws

Avoid predatory tows and learn how to get your vehicle back promptly with this guide to California towing laws.
Written by Jaya Anandjit
Edited by R.E. Fulton
towing laws authorize police and property owners to have vehicles towed if they are illegally parked or abandoned. Getting your car back after it’s been towed often involves paying steep towing and storage fees, so it’s important to know your rights. 
  • A vehicle may be towed by California police if it’s illegally parked, obstructing traffic, or posing a public safety hazard.
  • Private property owners must warn drivers before towing their vehicles. 
  • To get your vehicle after it’s been towed, you’ll need to provide necessary documentation and pay any applicable fees. 
  • California towing laws can be complicated depending on the situation at hand, but knowing your rights can help you avoid predatory practices.

When can police tow a vehicle in California? 

California Vehicle Code Section 22651
deals with situations when local police are authorized to tow a vehicle.
As per Section 22651 of the CVC, here are the main cases when California police may tow your vehicle: 
  • If the vehicle is left unattended in a tunnel or on a bridge, viaduct, or causeway
  • If the vehicle is left unattended on a highway such that it poses an obstruction or hazard to traffic
  • If the vehicle has been reported as stolen 
  • If the vehicle is illegally parked and blocking a private driveway or fire hydrant 
  • If the vehicle has been left for four or more hours on the right-of-way of a freeway 
  • If the driver of the vehicle is incapacitated by illness or injury and cannot move the vehicle 
  • If a vehicle found parked on a highway or public land has five or more unpaid parking tickets or five or more notices of failure to pay or appear for other traffic infractions 
  • If the vehicle is parked in violation of street cleaning notices 
  • If the driver is arrested while operating the vehicle
  • If the vehicle has no registration or license plates or the driver has no license
This isn’t an exhaustive list, so be sure to read the full text of the law if you want more information. But the short version is this: if your vehicle is illegally parked, obstructing traffic, or posing a hazard to others, the police can tow it. 
Keep in mind: If police tow your vehicle, it will be taken to an impound lot. 

How to get your car out of an impound lot in California

If your vehicle is towed to an impound lot, it’s important to get it out within 30 calendar days. After that, it goes to auction and you won’t be able to recover it at all. 
If you are the legal owner of the vehicle, you should be able to get it back during normal business hours. Be sure to bring: 
  • Your driver’s license
  • Proof of current registration
  • Cash or a credit card for payment of fees
If you’re not the legal owner of the vehicle, or if you can’t get to the lot yourself, someone other than the registered owner can claim the vehicle with the same documents and written authorization from the owner. 
In terms of fees, the exact amount you’ll have to pay varies depending on the circumstances, but be prepared for a charge in the hundreds or even thousands. That includes: 
  • Towing charges
  • Daily storage charges
  • Administrative fees
  • Transfer charge fees
  • After-hours gate fees, lien charges, and auction fees (when applicable)
MORE: My car got towed. Now what?
Police can’t afford to hold your car indefinitely, so act fast. Call the impound lot as soon as possible after the vehicle is towed and ask for instructions.  

When can private property owners tow a vehicle in California?

California private property towing laws, contained in
Section 22658
of the Vehicle Code, set out specific rules for property owners that limit the circumstances under which they can call a tow truck to remove a vehicle. 
One of the most important requirements is that they notify the vehicle owner before towing their vehicle. That can take a few different forms, such as: 
  • “NO PARKING” signs: The signs must be in plain view, at least 17 inches by 22 inches, and posted in plain view at all entrances. The signs must also include the name and number of the towing company that the property owner has an agreement with, along with the number for the local traffic law enforcement agency. 
  • Notice of parking violation: If the vehicle has been issued a violation notice, the property owner can tow the vehicle after 96 hours. 
  • Inoperable vehicles: If the vehicle is missing an engine, a transmission, wheels, tires, a windshield, or anything that would make it impossible (or illegal) to operate on a public road, the property owner can tow the vehicle if they first notify local law enforcement and wait 24 hours. 
If your vehicle is towed by a property owner who fails to comply with any of these requirements, they’re legally responsible for double the towing and storage fees for the vehicle. 
Here are a few other regulations associated with private property owners towing vehicles from their property:
  • The property owner must have the vehicle towed to a storage facility within a 10-mile radius of the car’s original location. 
  • The storage facility must be open during normal business hours (i.e. Monday through Friday, 8 am to 5 pm) and able to release the vehicle outside of those hours. 
  • After towing a vehicle, property owners are legally required to notify law enforcement within one hour. 
  • If the legal owner of the vehicle wants to know why their car was towed, the property owner must state the grounds for removal. 

When can your car be towed from a parking lot in California?

Section 22953
of the Vehicle Code, a vehicle may be immediately towed from a private parking lot (including retail or restaurant parking lots) if: 
  • The vehicle is blocking an entrance or exit
  • The vehicle is parked in a fire lane or in
    a disabled parking space without a permit
  • The vehicle is within 15 feet of a fire hydrant 
  • The vehicle is on residential property
  • The vehicle is parked in a motel or hotel parking lot in a space designated for a specific room 
If you’re not in violation of any of those conditions, you should be safe to park for at least an hour—but after one hour, your right to park has elapsed and the property owner is authorized to tow away your vehicle.  

What are my rights if my car is towed in California?

If your car is towed for any reason in California, remember that you have certain rights. These include: 
  • Reason: The right to know the grounds on which the vehicle was towed
  • Personal property recovery: The right to retrieve your personal property from the vehicle, even if you aren’t able to pay for the vehicle itself to be released
  • Legal action: The right to sue the towing company if the vehicle was damaged during removal
  • Notice: The right to notice before your vehicle is towed from private property
If your vehicle has been towed, call the local traffic enforcement agency right away for more detail and instructions. For example, the San Francisco Police Department maintains
a webpage with resources for drivers
whose vehicles have been towed. 
Violation of California’s towing laws is a civil misdemeanor, and you may be able to recover some of your costs if you can prove that your vehicle was towed illegally. 
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There’s no statewide maximum fee that towing companies can charge—instead, individual law enforcement agencies set the rates for their jurisdictions. Those rates usually aren’t posted publicly, so it can be hard to find this information: your best bet is to call your local law enforcement office and inquire about the maximum fee.
No. Under state law, unless your vehicle is illegally parked such that it’s causing an obstruction or hazard (e.g. in a fire lane or disabled parking spot), a landlord must give notice and/or post signs before towing your vehicle.
Yes, vehicle’s can get impounded at a
checkpoint if the driver is arrested for a DUI. If the driver is not arrested for a DUI but they are driving without a license, their vehicle will not be impounded. 
In California, your vehicle cannot be towed without notice from private property unless you are breaking the law or creating a hazard. Similarly, police officers can tow your vehicle without notice if you are parked illegally, your car is creating a hazard, your vehicle is abandoned, and more.
Vehicles can only remain impounded for 30 calendar days before they go to auction and are no longer recoverable. If your vehicle is impounded, call the impound lot as soon as possible and ask for recovery instructions.  
The parking time limit varies based on the location and circumstances, but in general, an illegally parked car can be towed after one hour. This includes cars that are illegally parked in
disabled parking spaces
, in fire lanes, close to a fire hydrant, and in restricted parking spots.
Vehicles may be immediately towed if they are blocking a residential driveway or a fire hydrant. Vehicles may also be towed if they are parked in front of a house during restricted hours. 
Otherwise, a vehicle may not be towed if it is legally parked in front of a residential house.
Depending on where you live within California, you can file a towing company complaint in small claims court, through your city’s police department, or through the Better Business Bureau.
Your vehicle may be towed from an apartment complex if it is illegally or improperly parked for one hour or more where “no parking” signs are present at all parking lot entrances.
If your vehicle is illegally parked in a restaurant parking lot, it can be towed immediately at the owner’s expense. If a sign is present at the parking space that prohibits non-customers from parking, your vehicle can be towed after an hour if you are not a customer. 
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