Opinion: I can't afford to pay parking tickets, so my car got towed. It upended my life

Ricardo DeAratanha 805 653–752 –– – Digital Image taken on Wednesday, 11/3/2004, Encino, CA – Photo by Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times –– A vehicle being impounded on Ventura Blvd. The city has decided to get tougher than ever on people who park their cars on rush hour tow–away zones. Tired of playing cat and mouse games with the motorists who parks their car for 5 minutes to pick up clothes from the cleaners––but who end up bottlenecking traffic––parking enforcement is vowing to do a full–court press on these traffic scofflaws.
Under California law, cars can be towed for having five or more unpaid tickets. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

As a widow and single mother in L.A. County who depends on survivor benefits, I knew I was just one disaster away from poverty. That disaster came in June this year when my car was towed for an insurmountable debt of unpaid parking tickets.

Usually I'm good at moving my car before 10 a.m. on street cleaning day, but on this particular morning, I received a call from my daughter’s summer camp alerting me that she was complaining of dizziness. Her pediatrician suggested on a telehealth call that she be taken to the hospital for tests. I hurriedly ran out to my car and then realized...

It wasn't there.

Read more: Towed or booted in L.A.? How to get your wheels back

I knew exactly what had happened. My well-used Jeep Cherokee, covered with bird droppings and fallen leaves from the elm trees above, hadn’t been stolen — it had been towed for all the parking tickets I couldn’t afford to pay.

A quick call to the police department’s traffic division confirmed this, along with my debt totaling $3,088. With registration, city administrative, towing and daily impound storage fees, that debt has since nearly doubled.

Two years ago I moved into my apartment. Since it didn’t come with a parking space, I received multiple citations our first week there. The ”no parking” limits from 2:30 to 5 a.m.: $63. No stopping: $95. Expired meter: $58. My limited income was stretched so thin, I simply couldn’t afford to pay them.

Then I received another ticket… and another. The late fees kept adding up, and my registration renewal was held for the nonpayment of just one ticket. Notices stamped “DELINQUENT PARKING VIOLATION” in bright red letters littered my desk. I felt completely overwhelmed. It got to the point where every time I saw a white piece of paper secured under my weathered windshield wiper, my heart would race and my chest tighten, knowing I would face yet another ticket I couldn’t afford.

Under current law, California cities can authorize a vehicle to be towed or immobilized if it has five or more unpaid parking tickets. In order to get my car released from the impound, I'm required to pay all fines to the DMV in full, as well as the fees accrued by the towing company. People call this a system of "poverty tows," which disproportionately affects low-income individuals who simply don’t have the money for their parking tickets.

Read more: Editorial: Towing can devastate a poor family. But the solution isn’t to throw out the rules

“What happens if I can’t afford to pay?” I asked the company who towed my car. “We’ll eventually auction it,” they told me, “but you’ll still be responsible for any fees not covered from the sale.”

Desperate to find a solution, I Googled “when your car is towed for unpaid parking tickets” and discovered a bill in the California legislature, AB 1082, that would eliminate poverty towing (with limited exceptions, according to the latest bill text). The Senate Appropriations Committee will decide on Friday what happens next to the bill.

Critics suggest this change would somehow reward and encourage more illegal parking. That misconception shows how out of touch opponents are with those who struggle living paycheck to paycheck and finding a place for their car. If someone can’t afford to pay their tickets, how are they going to afford all the added towing and impound fees on top of that to pay off their debt? The tow yards get paid no matter what, and they earn more if you don’t get your car back, from lien sales and accrued storage fees.

As a freelance video producer, I depend on my car not only to travel to different shooting locations but also as a DoorDash delivery driver between jobs. It wasn’t much, but DoorDash gave me the extra income I needed so I could eventually save enough to pay off my parking debt. I felt like “The Little Engine That Could.” Yes, there were challenges, money was extremely tight, but I had a plan to get out from under all this debt… I could do it!

Now that my car has been towed, I feel more like Sisyphus, punished for eternity never to get that boulder over the hill.

The toll on my mental health has hit me hard. From Day 1, I couldn’t be there for my daughter when she was in the hospital. I’m unable to make the income I need to support my family. Now I face losing my car and am buried in even greater debt.

The silver lining in all this is knowing I can play a small part to prevent this injustice from happening to others. It starts with sharing my story — and sharing why it’s so important to end poverty tows. Unaffordable parking debt should not block people from keeping their cars and livelihoods, establishing a reasonable plan to manage their debt, supporting their families or safeguarding their mental health.

Lesley Turner is a producer and founder of Call to Action Stories, a women-led video production team focused on driving positive social change.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.