What Can I Do When the Police Tow and Impound My Car?

By , Attorney

Having your car towed isn't just an inconvenience. It can be a major expense that increases every day your car remains in storage. The police can tow a car for many reasons, and can hang on to it in some circumstances.

This article will cover:

When Can the Police Legally Tow and Impound Someone's Car?

Towing laws vary from state to state and often city to city. In most places, the police can haul away your car (and even keep it for a period of time) in the kinds of situations discussed below.

Towing

The police can usually tow a car for any number of reasons, including certain kinds of traffic violations. For example, the police can probably tow a car that is:

  • left in a place where it impedes traffic, blocks a right of way (like a driveway or crosswalk), or causes a hazard
  • abandoned in a public place (the number of days that amount to abandonment varies), or
  • used in a crime or might contain evidence of a crime.

The police can also tow a car in situations where they find the driver unable to lawfully drive it—so long as no one else (a passenger, for example) can drive it. Here are a few examples:

  • the driver doesn't have a valid license
  • the driver is arrested for a DUI/DWI or some other crime
  • the car was involved in an accident and the driver is too injured to drive, or,
  • the car is on a public road and isn't registered (though some states don't authorize towing unless the car's been unregistered for a certain number of days or even months).

(See, for example, Cal. Vehicle Code § 22651 (2022).)

Impounding

In some circumstances, when the police tow a vehicle, they're also allowed to impound it. In other words, they might be allowed to take possession of it. In this way, impounding is different from merely storing a vehicle that's been towed. For example, if a private property owner has a car towed (for blocking their driveway for instance), the car would simply be stored in the tow lot until the owner retrieves it.

But when the police tow a vehicle, they can either send it to storage or, in some situations, impound it. In both scenarios, the car will go to the tow lot; but when a car's impounded, the police can refuse to release it until certain conditions are met. For instance, if the police stop a car and find it's unregistered or the driver isn't licensed, they can often tow and impound the car. Usually, the car must remain impounded until the owner fixes the violation (registers the car or gets a valid license).

The police also can normally impound a car that could contain evidence of a crime or was used during a crime. For example, a robbery getaway vehicle or a towed car that was involved in a DUI/DWI can typically be impounded.

These kinds of circumstances aside, if the car is towed for something less serious—like a parking violation—the police normally wouldn't have grounds to impound it.

(See 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 6309.2; 625 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/11-208.7 (2022).)

How Do You Get Your Car Back When the Police Tow or Impound It?

Acting quickly when your car is towed is important if you want to minimize the expense involved. But circumstances beyond your control might interfere with getting your car back. For example, in some situations, cars that were used during a crime or that might contain evidence of a crime could be legally impounded until the criminal case is over.

And if the car's owner (or their agent) is convicted of a particular kind of crime involving the car (like drug trafficking offenses), the car might be forfeited to the state. In that case, the owner will never get it back.

But assuming the police towed the car for something that doesn't allow them to hold on to it, there are steps you can take to get it back as soon as possible. And even if the car remains impounded and you can't get it back yet, you might be able to avoid hefty fees for prolonged storage in some circumstances.

Due Process Rights When the State Takes Your Car

Most courts agree that after authorities tow and impound a car, they must provide the owner prompt notice and an opportunity for a hearing to determine if it was lawfully towed and impounded. The right to a hearing ensures that the state, city, or other municipality can't take people's property or hold them responsible for related costs without due process of law. (Propert v. District of Columbia, 948 F.2d 1327 (D.C. Cir. 1991).)

Unfortunately, some police departments don't have towing policies that ensure people receive due process. Most contract with a private towing and storage lot instead of maintaining their own facilities. These private lots can be unfamiliar with the laws on towing and impounding, and might be more interested in getting paid than they are in the car owner's rights. For these reasons, getting your car out of the lot might not be so easy.

The quickest way to begin the process is to take action right away.

Asking for Release Immediately

You should ask the storage lot for release of the vehicle as soon as possible, even if the police had the right to tow it. The right to tow a vehicle isn't the same as the right to keep it. But if you don't ask, the police or storage company might claim that you abandoned the car or left it in the lot voluntarily, and will charge you storage fees.

Many law enforcement agencies (especially those in larger cities) publish information online about what to do when your car is towed, and how to request release. If there's no online information, you can call local tow yards to see if your car is there. If that's unsuccessful, you can call the police (or sheriff's) department to find out where it is and how to request release.

Once you've located the car, a licensed driver with proof of liability insurance should be the person who goes to get it. If this person isn't the owner, they should be accompanied by the owner, or have a notarized power of attorney signed by the owner.

If the car doesn't have valid, up-to-date plates, you probably won't be allowed to drive it off the lot. You would need to bring valid plates (or current registration stickers) or arrange to have the car towed to where you want it.

Court Orders for Release

If you ask for the car and the lot refuses because the police impounded it, you might be able to get an order from the court that makes the lot release it.

The procedure for seeking a court order will depend on the state. A vehicle owner might be able to request an order by filing a motion for release of the car or by asking for a hearing. Many states have laws that spell out when and how a car owner can get a hearing to determine if their cars should remain impounded. (See, for example, Tex. Occupations Code § 2308.452 (2022); 625 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/11-208.7 (2022); Wash. Rev. Code § 46.55.120 (2022).)

If the court agrees that the car isn't legally impounded, it will issue an order for its release.

Even if your vehicle is legally impounded in connection with criminal charges, you (better yet, your lawyer) might consider asking the court to release the car until the case is resolved. If the police are finished searching the vehicle and processing it for evidence (DNA, fingerprints), the court might find they have no need to keep it anymore.

Also, the court might order the car released if the case might take longer to get to trial than the period of impoundment authorized by law.

Either way, requesting release might avoid hefty storage fees, which can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars over time.

Who Pays When the Tow or Impound Is Unlawful or Isn't the Owner's Fault?

Depending on the state, the owner might not be responsible for towing or impound fees in some circumstances. Here are a few examples.

  • The car was illegally impounded. Depending on the facts of the case, you might not owe any towing or impound fees if the car wasn't legally towed or impounded to begin with.
  • The car is no longer legally impounded. When a court finds that a car was lawfully impounded but no longer is, the police are usually responsible for the storage fees that accumulated after the request to release it. Assuming the car was legally towed, you might still have to pay for towing and storage up to the time that you asked for its return.
  • The car was stolen when impounded. If a car was stolen at the time it was towed or impounded, the owner isn't usually legally responsible for paying the towing and impound fees.
  • The car was involved in a crime committed by someone else. The owner isn't normally on the hook for the fees when a car is impounded for a crime that they had nothing to do with (such as when someone steals or borrows a car to commit a crime). The person who's convicted of the crime usually has to pay the fees. (But if the defendant isn't convicted, the police or prosecutor's office normally has to pay.)

Even though you might not be legally responsible for the fees, the lot might demand that you pay them before they give you back your car. This practice, which is allowed in some states, puts the car owner between a rock and a hard place: If they don't pay the fees, they don't get their car, and the fees continue to grow every day the car remains in storage. And if no one pays the fees to get the car back, the lot can sometimes sell the car after a certain amount of time has passed.

If you've paid fees or lost your car when someone else should have paid up, you might be able to get reimbursed. The procedure for getting compensated will depend on the state you're in. Your car insurance might also cover the cost.

(D & B Immobilization Corp. v. Dues, 701 N.E.2d 32 (Ohio Ct. App. 1997); State v. Britton, 733 N.E.2d 288, fn. 2 (Ohio Ct. App. 1999); Summers v. State of Utah (10th Cir. 1991) 927 F.2d 1165; Cal. Vehicle Code § 22655.5 (2022).)

Talk With an Attorney

Towing and impound laws vary from state to state and city to city, and can be complicated— especially when they're connected with criminal charges. If you've been charged with a crime (including something like driving on a suspended license), or your car was involved in a crime, you should talk to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

If you're having trouble getting your car back, a lawyer might be able to help you get it sooner. And if you've paid any towing or impound fees that you shouldn't have owed—or worse, your car was sold because you couldn't afford the fees—an attorney might be able to help you get reimbursed for your financial loss.

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