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California Tow Truck Association v. City & County of San Francisco

California Court of Appeals, First District, Fourth Division

April 23, 2014

CITY AND COUNTY OF SAN FRANCISCO, Defendant and Respondent.

San Francisco City and County, A135960 Hon. Harold Kahn

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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The Law Offices of Brooks Ellison and Patrick J. Whalen, for Plaintiff and Appellant

Dennis J. Herrera, City Attorney, Wayne Snodgrass, Deputy City Attorney, and Vince Chhabria, Deputy City Attorney, for Defendant and Respondent

Carmen A. Trutanich, City Attorney, Carlos De La Guerra, Managing Assistant City Attorney, and Debra L. Gonzales, Assistant City Attorney, for League of California Cities as Amicus Curiae.


Rivera, J.

State law generally preempts local law in the field of traffic control. (Rumford v. City of Berkeley (1982) 31 Cal.3d 545, 550 [183 Cal.Rptr. 73, 645 P.2d 124] [a city has no authority over vehicular traffic control unless expressly provided by the Legislature].) There are exceptions, and this appeal concerns one of those exceptions: The Legislature has allowed local regulation of tow truck companies and drivers. Given that power, the City and County of San Francisco and other cities have adopted permit systems to regulate towing service. The question is whether tow truck companies and drivers must obtain a permit in each jurisdiction in which they tow cars. Contrary to the decision reached by the trial court, we conclude San Francisco is authorized to regulate only those tow truck companies and drivers who maintain their principal place of business or employment in that city. We also conclude San Francisco may collect a fee or fees to cover the cost of that regulation.


A. San Francisco’s Tow Truck Regulatory Scheme

The City and County of San Francisco (the City or San Francisco) requires both tow truck drivers and tow truck companies to obtain permits to tow cars in the City. The 2 permit requirements are found in the City’s Police Code. (S.F. Police Code, §§ 3000–3013, 3050–3065.) The code requires tow truck drivers to complete a permit application that requests personal, employment and license information. (Id., § 3002.) The applicant is also required to provide information on all criminal offenses for which he or she has been arrested, a complete set of fingerprints, and a current photograph. (Id., §§ 3002, subd. (5), 3003, subds. (b), (c).) The applicant must pay a filing fee and a fingerprinting fee. (Id., § 3003, subds. (a), (e).)

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The Chief of Police will grant the application unless the applicant has been convicted of certain crimes within the prior four years. (S.F. Police Code, § 3004, subd. (a).) Those crimes include burglary, robbery, theft, receipt of stolen property, breaking or removing parts from a vehicle, malicious mischief to a vehicle, unlawful use or tampering by the bailee of a vehicle, or altering a vehicle identification number. (Ibid.) The application may also be denied if the applicant has “acted in violation” of the criminal statutes for the preceding crimes. (Id., subd. (b).) Finally, the chief may deny the application if the driver intentionally falsified any statement in the application. (Id., subd. (c).)

The owner or owners of a “Tow Car Firm” are required to prepare an application and submit information similar to that provided by drivers, including fingerprints and current photographs.[1] (S.F. Police Code, §§ 3051, subd. (1); 3052; 3053.) The applicant must also provide a description of the firm’s business operations and information regarding its vehicles, employees, and insurance. (Id., § 3052, subds. (3), (4), (5) & (6).) The Chief of Police will grant the application unless the firm does not possess a minimum amount of liability insurance or the requisite equipment or facilities to protect towed vehicles. (Id., § 3054, subds. (1), (2).) An owner’s conviction for any one of several serious crimes can also disqualify the firm from obtaining a permit, as will falsifying any statement or omitting information from the application. (Id., § 3054, subds. (3), (4).) Finally, the firm must possess a bank credit card machine. (Id., § 3054, subd. (5).)

The towing firm must pay a filing fee with its application. (S.F. Police Code, § 3053, subd. (4).) If the firm obtains a permit, it must pay a “license” fee based on the number of trucks used in the business. The permit must be renewed (and the license fee paid) annually. (Id., § 3062.)

The City imposes various requirements on permitted towing firms, including reporting tows from private property to City authorities within 30 minutes of the tow, maintaining records for each tow, and notifying the police of any changes in vehicles or drivers. (S.F. Police Code, §§ 3057, 3058, 3060.) The firm must also make available a brochure prepared by the police department that summarizes California law on the rights and responsibilities of vehicle owners, tow operators, and real property owners with respect to tows from private property. (Id., § 3055.2, subds. (c), (d).)

A permit may be revoked. The Chief of Police shall revoke a driver’s permit “if after a hearing on the matter he finds that grounds exist which

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would have constituted just cause for refusal to issue such permit.” (S.F. Police Code, § 3011.) A firm’s permit may be revoked for a host of reasons, including criminal convictions, improper or excessive tow or storage charges, improper tows, failure to maintain required insurance, or the employment of drivers who do not possess a valid permit. (Id., § 3056.)

Towing vehicles without a permit is a misdemeanor. (S.F. Police Code, ...

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