Orange County sheriff officials are asking to almost triple the fee charged to most people whose cars are impounded by police, with county supervisors scheduled to vote today on whether to approve the fee increase.
The proposal, which covers more than 90 percent of cars impounded by the Sheriff’s Department, would increase vehicle impound fees from the current $50 to a proposed $144.
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The fee increase would apply to people whose vehicles are towed in the 13 cities and dozens of unincorporated areas patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department.
The higher fees would apply to a large majority of the reasons cars are impounded – ranging from having multiple unpaid parking citations or out of date registration, to parking over 72 hours in one spot, to a car being seized as evidence in a crime.
In their official staff report, sheriff officials say the increase is meant to recover their actual costs to process impounds, after salary increases have increased staffing costs since the fee was last set in the year 2000.
At the same time, there are concerns the increase will disproportionately affect the poorest residents of Orange County, especially homeless people whose cars are seized for failing to pay parking citations or vehicle registration.
“Charging these administrative fees for impounding cars that happen to be a lifeline for people who are experiencing homelessness and can’t afford the high cost of living in Orange County really amounts to extracting money from our most economically disadvantaged community members to fund our public services,” said Eve Garrow, homelessness policy analyst and advocate at the ACLU of Southern California.
“These services are supposed to be public. We shouldn’t be funding them off of the backs of our poorest community members.”
Garrow said the most common reasons she hears of homeless people’s car being impounded are multiple unpaid parking tickets, which she says can add up when cities ban overnight parking.
“Not only are their cars impounded often because they’re too poor to afford parking tickets that they may receive for example, or too poor to pay for their registration fee, but then they’re impounded and they can’t get them back without paying these exorbitant fines and fees, which it sounds like they’re increasing,” she added. “And that just contributes to the cycle of poverty and homelessness.”
Sheriff officials say they’re simply recouping their costs, and that there’s a process for people to get help with paying citations if they can’t afford the fines.
“When we issue citations now, there is a process for claiming [indigence] and saying that you don’t have the money,” said Sgt. Dennis Breckner, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
“But it’s incumbent on members of the public to identify that issue and request assistance or leniency. But of course you would avoid stacking those citations by, first, not violating them. We encourage members of the public to park legally and to keep their registration up to date.”
Garrow says many cities prohibit parking overnight on their streets, “and so people living in their cars find it very difficult to avoid accumulating parking tickets.”
“I think other causes are really that it’s expensive to maintain a vehicle,” she added. “So you have to have current tags, you have to have a current registration and insurance [and] if registration expires, your car may get towed.”
Sheriff officials note they’re not responsible for setting the vehicle registration fees levied by the DMV, and their job is to enforce violations.
“What we ask the members of the public to do is don’t just ignore citations. There is a process,” Breckner said, noting the process for claiming inability to pay.
“We encourage members of the public to park legally and to keep their registration up to date,” he added. “The sheriff’s department is not responsible for the California DMV and whatever fees they charge. But certainly we have an expectation that we’re going to uphold the law, and when it comes to violators, we’re going to issue citations accordingly.”
As for the fee the sheriff charges for impounding cars, Breckner noted the last time it was increased was in the year 2000. “Now, 20 years later with financial times the way they are, it’s kind of important that we look at ways in which we can recoup costs,” he said.
Sheriff officials examined their current costs, “and when we looked at that in comparison to 20 years ago…the request for $144 is more in line with what it costs us to actually work that call,” Breckner said.
“As you can imagine 20 years ago cars were much less expensive and employees were a lot less expensive. And frankly the reason why we didn’t bring this to the board earlier is we know the Board of Supervisors in Orange County does not like to increase fees.”
The bulk of the vehicle impound cost – $127 of the $144 – is for sheriff staff time to process the impound, according to the department.
While the fee is going up in most cases, sheriff officials are proposing to slightly decrease the fee when vehicles are impounded because the driver is unlicensed, which accounts for a small portion of impounds – about 7 percent last fiscal year. The fee in such cases would drop from $150 to $144.
County supervisors are scheduled to vote on the fee changes at their regular meeting today.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.