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Hacking SF: How to Beat a Tow Violation

Seven ways to get crafty with the SFMTA after they tow your ride.

Far too many of us have been there: The “Dude, Where's My Car?” moment. You look around vacantly. Your pulse quickens. Maybe you parked it on the other side of the street? Was it stolen? Then you notice that dreaded wobbly white and red sign, hidden in the leaves of an overgrown tree: "NO PARKING. TOW AWAY ZONE." Shit. You hail a cab to the Auto Return center in the bowels of SoMa at midnight to retrieve your vehicle. The woman behind the bulletproof window shoves the bill through the slip, as you figure she's done to thousands of poor souls who've stood here before (you can see it in her eyes).

The bill looks like this:
Towing fee: $218
SF “administrative fee:” $254
Hourly: $56

$528. Oh hell no. You explain you don't have $528 to fork over and she explains in a calm but menacing tone that you can't have your car back until you pay and it will be an extra $56 per hour until you pay up (increasing to $65 after the first 24 hours). You reluctantly hand over your Visa. Just when you think it's over, the proverbial door smacks you on the way out: In the dusty lot beneath the highway, there's a $72 parking ticket on your windshield, issued five minutes before they towed you, bringing the grand total to $600.

Like many city dwellers, I found myself in this scenario a few months ago. I felt so helpless. But I when I noticed something wrong the next morning—I wasn't actually parked within the tow away signs—I decided to take action. What unfolded over the next three months was a murky and confusing process, not surprisingly intended to dissuade people from fighting their tow. But I stuck it out, and guess what? I got a full refund from the SFMTA. It wasn't easy, and I only won because I was wrongfully towed, but here's how it went down—and the crucial lessons I learned along the way.

1. Play detective.
Gather all the information you can:
-Exactly where your car was parked.
-The time you parked it.
-Where the signs were in relation to your vehicle.
-If the signs were posted properly (the SFMTA requires temporary No Parking signs be posted at least 72 hours in advance). 
-If it was towed in your neighborhood, ask neighbors if their respective vehicles were also towed. If multiple people contest from the same place and time for the same reason, it can strengthen your case.

In my case, the signs near my vehicle said it was a temporary No Parking Zone due to a residential move. Presumably, that meant they needed enough space for a moving van. I went on U-Haul's website and got the dimensions of their smallest residential moving van, which happened to be the exact distance between the two no parking signs. I was positive I'd parked few feet away from the signs, so I wondered why they had towed me. When I saw that the ramp required an extra eight feet, I realized the people who posted the signs, might have not accounted for the ramp until they realized they needed the extra space to unload, and subsequently towed my car. I drew out my hypothesis, which turned out to be crucial later.

2. Take photos.
I took photos of where my vehicle was parked from 360 degrees around it, so that the hearing officer could see it from every angle, even though it was after my vehicle was towed. Sometimes the DPT officer who authorizes the tow takes photos, so call to see if they have any on file for your citation number and request they be sent to you. If they don't have photos, use that lack of evidence to your advantage.

3. Contest it in person.
When you have your case together, set up a time in person to contest your tow with an SFMTA hearing officer by calling 415-701-5402. You have the option to do it by mail, but that doesn't give you the opportunity to answer questions the agent might have, which could make it easier for them to dismiss your case. Note: You can contest the parking ticket at the same time.

4. Don't be a jerk.
When you arrive for your case it's absolutely essential not to dump all of your rage on the SFMTA officer. You want him or her on your side. Think of it as an exercise in anger management and legal training, in case you ever decide to be a lawyer. I was surprised the officer my case was assigned to asked me thoughtful questions and seemed to legitimately consider both sides. But he probably wouldn't have listened to a word I said if I'd shown up unprepared and angry.

5. Lay it all out on the table.
I splayed the photos on the officer's desk, along with the printout of the moving van's dimensions, and measurements from between the two signs (to support my theory that they'd underestimated the space required for the moving van). I also brought a close-up photo of the sign, stating it was for a residential move. In addition, I brought a printout of the exact dates and times everything played out, so the officer could get the whole picture. By the end of my 45-minute conversation he was nodding in agreement. He said he would conduct further investigation, and respond to me with the verdict within 2-4 weeks.

6. Follow up.
Around week two, I anxiously checked my mailbox everyday for a letter from the SFMTA. I waited. And waited. And waited. When week six rolled around, I called the SFMTA tow hearing request line again, and asked for a status update on my case. “It's pending,” said the voice on the other line. I asked if she could notify the officer I had checked in, in a naïve hope that would get him to respond. Another week went by, and I called again. The same conversation happened on repeat for the next month.

7. Get strategic, not angry. And never give up.
Three months after I initially protested the tow, I still didn't know the verdict for my case. Despite getting to know the nice woman on the other end of the request line (hi, Marla!), who repeatedly sent updates to the officer (supposedly), I still hadn't heard anything. I needed to be more proactive. I needed to get crafty. The next time I called, I asked for the officer's direct line. After some back and forth, I had his number in my hands. I immediately put it in my phone—on speed dial. It was time to get serious. I called the officer's number and without ever directly turning into a jerk (per rule number 4) I left him voicemails. Every day, for two and a half weeks straight. When I got an “intent to notify the DMV” notice from the SFMTA parking citation center (a different department) for my unpaid parking ticket (remember, the officer said not to pay it? Well, the citation department said otherwise), I called the SFMTA parking citation line and explained the situation to someone at the customer service department. He had no idea what I was talking about, so I nicely asked him to call the officer in charge of my case and said he could explain it all. “I even have his direct line for you!” He called the officer, and left a voice mail as well, just so it was clear to the officer how many people were anxiously awaiting his decision.

Three days later, I finally got the letter I'd been waiting for. A crisp white piece of paper that said my case had been dismissed. A reimbursement check with my name on it was on the way. 

(Note: Had the verdict not been in my favor, I would have had the opportunity to appeal it.)

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