Picture this: A family emergency strikes. You toss a few essentials in a bag and leave town in a hurry. Or worse: you’re hospitalized unexpectedly. In either case, the car you left legally street parked at home is the last thing on your mind—until you return a couple weeks later to find it’s gone. It’s been towed by the city, and now it’s your responsibility to figure out where it is and get it back. Best case scenario, you could owe hundreds or thousands of dollars in impound fees on top of other expenses, and worst case? The government quickly and quietly auctioned it off to someone else under your nose, all because you didn’t know a quasi-secret rule.
That’s the reality in New York City, where an opaque, little-known civil forfeiture system allows the city to auction towed vehicles just 10 business days after they’re first impounded, no matter what prompted the tow. What’s more, bidders are prohibited from buying back their own vehicles. If you can’t retrieve your car within two weeks, it’s gone for good. Towing is a messy, unfair business that often targets and punishes those who can least afford it, and millions of U.S. residents’ vehicles are towed involuntarily each year for nonemergency reasons, according to a 2019 report from The Progressive. But the law in the Big Apple adds an extra layer of punishment that can easily snare anyone with bad luck at the wrong time, whether or not you live paycheck to paycheck (as more than half of Americans do).
When I first read that 10-day rule, I was stunned. To put that in perspective, your car could be towed on a Monday morning and unretrievable as of 5 PM, a week from Friday. That may sound like a long time, but in a world where most full-time wage-earners are paid biweekly and people living on a fixed income may only get paid once a month, it's really not. I wanted to know more, but the city’s Department of Finance, which oversees towing and vehicle auctions, wasn’t too eager to give me answers.
Its website says the police can tow and impound a vehicle “for any parking violation anywhere in the city,” although a tow may be more likely if it’s parked in front of a fire hydrant, blocking traffic, or if the registered owner owes more than $350 in unpaid parking tickets. An average New York City parking ticket costs between $65 and $110 before any additional penalties or late fees, and it also doesn’t necessarily mean your car was parked illegally. I recently received two parking tickets totaling $130 within a 22-hour span because I forgot my car’s inspection sticker had lapsed by a day. (I fought both tickets and beat one, but had to pay the second.)
Once the car is towed and impounded, the clock starts ticking. An owner is responsible for a tow fee between $185 and $370, as well as an overnight storage fee of $20 for each day it’s unclaimed. That’s in addition to a $185 boot fee if the car has been immobilized, and any unpaid parking tickets and penalties plus interest. If your car was towed because of an expired registration or inspection sticker, you’ll have to pay a tow company another $250 to retrieve it from the pound, since it’s illegal to drive. While the Department of Finance did not respond to my question as to the average cost to retrieve a vehicle, it’s pretty easy to imagine a bill well into the thousands of dollars.
A recent search of New York City’s publicly-accessible vehicle auctions page for a single week in November 2023 yielded 184 cars across five different auctions. The cars ranged from a 1987 Mercedes 560 SEL to multiple 2022 models and luxury vehicles with outstanding loans. There's a download link below if you'd like to see them for yourself. It’s unclear how many of these vehicles were abandoned or seized for involvement in crimes, and how many were towed for parking violations. The city wouldn’t comment on how many vehicles it seizes annually or the amount of revenue it makes from auctioning them off, but if you extrapolate 184 times 52 weeks in a year, that's nearly 10,000 people losing their cars every year in a single city.
So, why such a short window to reclaim a car? A big factor is that New York City is strapped for storage space after its largest tow pound along Manhattan’s West Side Highway closed in 2021 to make way for a park. The prevalence of falsely-plated “ghost cars” offers another clue. The NYPD and Mayor Eric Adams promised to crack down on cars with false or obscured license plates, often installed to avoid legal registration and enforcement. They’re losing the fight. Transportation deputy chief Michael Pilecki told Gothamist that “any vehicle bearing one of these fraudulent plates instantly becomes undetectable to nearly every aspect of street-level enforcement, from tolls to speed and red light cameras and even parking enforcement.” The NYPD admitted there isn’t even enough space to tow every fraudulently-plated car in the city, and the 10-day rule, while not new, allows it to clear impound lots quickly and make space for more cars to be towed.
But enforcement isn’t equal. Since they’re largely untraceable, ghost cars operate with near-impunity, and disposing of abandoned cars falls to the Department of Sanitation, which has far fewer resources at its disposal than the NYPD. Since impound space is at a premium and parking officers aren’t equipped to deal with the most egregious scofflaws, enforcement is concentrated on those who try to follow the rules by legally registering their cars. This punitive and targeted enforcement is pretty clearly aimed at revenue and not ethics.
Punitive towing practices are a problem everywhere, from apartment complexes in Nevada to streets in Tennessee—and they overwhelmingly affect middle- and working-class residents. A California appellate court ruled unanimously in July that San Francisco’s “poverty tows”—a similar city practice of towing legally-parked vehicles which had 5 or more unpaid parking tickets—were unconstitutional under the 4th Amendment, as they represent an unreasonable seizure of property. Attorney Zal Shroff of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights celebrated the decision and explained that these tows don’t make sense for anyone. “Stealing someone’s only means to go to work or support their family, without a warrant, doesn’t make sense for anyone,” Shroff told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Municipalities lose money on these summary tows and vehicle auctions, working Californians lose everything and we thrust yet more Californians into poverty and onto our streets.”
I know a massive, dense city like New York needs parking rules to maintain public order. Frankly, there’s probably too much public space dedicated to free curbside parking here, and in most U.S. cities. But the more I consider the NYPD’s broad mandate and the Department of Finance’s hefty fines and tight forfeiture window, the harder it is for me to accept as anything less than an insanely mismanaged policy that preys on poorer residents above all. I'm no policy expert, but I can think of a number of workable proposals such as means-based fines, transparent appeals, and auction moratoriums that would make things better for everyone. There are at least 184 people this week who’d agree with me.