This one time my car was stolen, and then I was robbed... By the City of San Francisco

By: Catherine Moore

There was a time in my life, when I believed in the security of parking garages.   In fact, I've been pro parking-garage since I was of driving age.  I park in them when I run errands.  I park in them when I drive to work.  I pay for a monthly parking spot at the Civic Center parking garage.

On March 23, 2011, my rose-colored parking garage glasses were shattered.

I frequently park my car in the Sutter Stockton Garage.  And I hate to say anything negative about the parking structure that has protected my car on so many occasions, but I'm going to anyways, so here goes...

On March 23, I parked my car on the 4th floor of the Sutter Stockton Garage.  When I returned to the garage, 45 minutes later, my car was gone.  I calmly told the attendants that my car was missing.  They laughed that I’d “lost” my car.  "No....you lost my car," I replied.  No more laughter.  Awkward silence.

I'll spare you the details of the search for the car, sans a few key takeaways:

1.  Yes, someone had stolen my car.

2.  The Sutter Stockton Garage has video cameras, but don't get too excited because they don't record anything.  The cameras are only there for “traffic use."  Whatever that means.  The second I heard that I tuned the rest of the explanation out to avoid unleashing the stream of expletives that were building up beneath my calm exterior.

3.  If you “lose” your car in the Sutter Stockton garage, most of the attendants (3 out of 4 in my case) will tell you cars are not stolen from the garage.  But when you file your police report, the police will tell you it happens semi-frequently.

Now, this blog is not meant to be a rant against the Sutter Stockton Garage (although clearly the garage’s security could use some improvement).  This precursor is only included to demonstrate that having a car stolen is a difficult and trying experience.  And it happens to people in this city all the time.

Additionally, let me just say that I have nothing but praise for the SFPD.  The policewoman who took my report was calming, informative and truthful.  And the SFPD successfully found my stolen car a little over 24 hours after it was taken.

At approximately 7:30pm on March 24, I missed a call from the SFPD.  I called them back a little after 8pm, and they told me they had found my car, towed it, and I could pick it up at the Auto Return Center the next day. Hooray!!

The next morning, I called the Auto Return Center, and they said that indeed, they had my car, and it would cost me approximately $500 to get it back.

…WHAT?

I mentioned to the woman on the phone that it didn't seem fair that I would be charged any amount of money for my car being stolen.   She agreed with me, but that was the last thing we agreed on.          

I headed over to 850 Bryant St. to get my vehicle release form.  The first thing I saw was a sign announcing that you must pay a $194 administrative fee before you can even get your form.  The officer I spoke to waived the fee, but I found out later it was only because I was a resident of San Francisco.  (Read:  if you are not a resident of SF but your car gets stolen here, you will have to pay the $194 administrative fee).

Feeling slightly more positive about the recovery process, I headed to Auto Return.  The woman that helped me reviewed my paperwork and told me that I only owed $250, since my administrative fee had been waived.

Still too much.

I asked the woman at the desk if this made any sense to her (lots of smiling and shrugging).  She told me that at one time, all fees for SF residents were waived if your stolen car was found by the SFPD, and towed.   Clearly, that is no longer the case.  So how did it change? Why did it change?

WHY?

According to the woman at Auto Return, the exemption on the fees was repealed because people were reporting their cars as stolen when they were towed to avoid paying the fees.

Ok. But let's explore this for a minute.

I can certainly understand the need to put a procedure in place to counter fee-dodging.

But if a person has reported a car as stolen and filed a police report before that same car is towed, then that person should be exempt from paying fees for the recovery process.

It’s possible that some people may think their car is going to be towed and falsely report it as stolen in advance, but I doubt that would be a common occurrence.

Bottom line:  There is no justification for blanket recovery fees for stolen cars. 

HOW?

In 2003, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed Ordinance No. 190-03 approving an administrative fee of $194 "...for police costs for of towing vehicles."

In 2004, Auto Return was awarded the contract for San Francisco's municipal towing services.

In 2005, Ordinance No 191-05 was passed by the Board and the Mayor repealing San Francisco Administrative Code Section 10C.8-1, "...which exempts residents of San Francisco from paying tow and storage fees on stolen vehicles." This same ordinance amended San Francisco Administrative Code Section 10C.1 and San Francisco Traffic Code Section 170.1, "...to exempt City residents from payment of an administrative fee in connection with the towing and storage of stolen vehicles."

To summarize:

Once upon a time, SF residents did not have to pay any fees for the recovery of a stolen, towed vehicle.

Now they do.

They say that crime doesn't pay.  But for Auto Return and the City of San Francisco... it sometimes does.

Paid for by Phil Ting for Assembly 2012. FPPC ID# 1343137