In December 2015, a tow truck took away the RV Scott Largent lived in. Six years later, he’s still not sure what happened to it.
Largent, a longtime homeless activist in San Jose, said he started living in his RV after difficult financial times. On Dec. 29, 2015, San Jose police officers arrested Largent for allegedly failing to respond to a 72-hour notice to move his vehicle from a city street. Largent said police booked him at the county jail, but dropped charges. In the meantime, they had his RV towed.
After his release, Largent went to SJPD headquarters and learned he would have to go to a city-contracted tow company—Courtesy Tow Service—and pay the fees for storage. But houseless and struggling without any of his possessions, Largent said it took him about two weeks to find the tow yard.
At Courtesy, Largent said he was told his RV had been destroyed.
“I was literally starting to cry,” Largent said. “My father’s ashes are in there, everything I owned.”
For the past six years, Largent has been fighting for records of what happened to his RV and the property inside it. He’s spoken about it at meetings held by the San Jose City Council and Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. He was arrested in 2018 for using a bullhorn to demand information about his RV outside the San Jose Police Department.
Last year, Largent finally managed to obtain court records in an active criminal case against him, stemming from his arrests outside the police department, that indicate Courtesy Tow sold his RV in a lien sale. Largent said he doesn’t buy that explanation, and no one has told him what happened to the property in his RV.
“I think they just took everything that was in there,” Largent said, referring to the tow company. Robert Coen, owner of Courtesy Tow and Matos Auto Tow & Transport, did not respond to a request for a comment.
Like other local governments in California, San Jose routinely tows vehicles for parking too long in one spot, out of date vehicle registration and outstanding parking tickets. But as Largent found with the search for his RV, tracking towing operations in the city is difficult.
SJPD, which authorizes towing vehicles, does not have readily accessible data on the number of vehicles towed in the city. Spokesperson Sgt. Christian Camarillo told San José Spotlight that information on the number of inhabited RVs towed in 2019 and 2020 would have to be obtained through a public records request, and he claimed the office faces a weeks-old backlog of requests.
In response to a records request, SJPD said tow and impound data is not regularly recorded in the department’s records management system, as it is still mostly a paper process. The department attached a list of several hundred impounds from the past three years, but did not include reasons for the impounds.
Camarillo noted that RVs are subject to the same laws for towing regular vehicles, and may be towed for expired registration over six months.
“However, we are sensitive to the unhoused situation in our city and we see these not just as vehicles but as someone’s home,” Camarillo said. “We do our best to mitigate circumstances and to keep the needs in mind of the individual(s) residing in an RV versus the need to tow.”
High storage fees
A 2018 report from the San Jose city auditor found that contracted companies towed 15,700 vehicles.
That same year, a report analyzing towing practices in 15 major cities in California found that San Jose towing companies charge the highest fees for storage of towed vehicles. According to the report, towing companies charge $87.50 per day—for comparison, the report notes that nearby garages and lots charge less than $10 per day. When combined with other service fees, a vehicle owner can owe a towing company $1,562 after just two weeks in San Jose.
Miguel Soto, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center and a contributor to the towing report, said most cities and municipalities set a “ceiling” for what towing companies can charge when impounding a vehicle at the city’s direction.
“I remember San Jose had identified the high daily storage fee as an issue in late 2018, but I’ll admit that I don’t know if they’ve actually done anything about it,” Soto told San José Spotlight.
According to San Jose’s most recent contract with Courtesy Tow, which extends service through 2022, the storage fee is now $90 per day for outside lots and $95 for indoors. According to the same agreement, towing contractors are supposed to provide the city with information about the number of tows each month, plus the number of vehicles sold at lien sales and the number of vehicles junked.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, San Jose also offered financial assistance to towing companies by dropping their contract compensation fee from $41 per tow to $0.
The 2018 city audit notes that minimum fees for recovering vehicles in San Jose are higher than in other large cities primarily due to the city’s high vehicle release fee. Sixteen of the 17 recommendations made by the auditor—including a recommendation for tow companies to submit information about individual tows on a regular basis—have not been implemented.
Sam Lew, senior communications manager for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, said that city-contracted tow companies inflict significant harm on vulnerable residents.
“The bottom line is that cities are paying tremendous amounts of money to towing companies to tow poor people’s vehicles, leave them in debt, or leave them without a home,” Lew said. “In most cases, (cities) are losing money.”