San Jose refreshes its approach to abandoned vehicles

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The San Jose Department of Transportation has recalibrated its approach to vehicle towing.

Post-pandemic, the Parking Compliance Unit of the transportation department is working smarter in how it responds to public reports. New policy prioritizes cases based on a vehicle’s condition and likelihood to be towed. Reports of abandoned, non-working vehicles will be investigated over those simply parked on the street for a length of time. Photos are now required with reports and officers conduct proactive patrols throughout the city.

From March 2019 to February 2020, the city responded to 25,000 calls in which the vehicles were no longer there by the time the city went out to check, said transportation department spokesperson Colin Heyne. With its new program, the number of unproductive calls dropped significantly to only 2,600 from March 2021 to February 2022, said Elias Khoury, transportation parking manager, at a presentation last week. 

“Previously, we worked all cases regardless of the vehicle’s condition,” Khoury said. “Now we are identifying and removing vehicles that meet criteria… We can do the same or better with less officers and less money spent.”

San Jose has struggled with growing blight, including abandoned vehicles, over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Councilmembers recently allocated funds to fight blight around the city.

Based on the California Vehicle Code, inoperable vehicles are candidates for towing if they are missing an engine, windshield, steering wheel, driver’s seat, two or more wheels, or have extensive damage making them immobile. These vehicles will be towed immediately.

An abandoned sedan on blocks. Photo courtesy of San Jose.

A vehicle posing a safety hazard or contributing to extreme blight may be also towed. This includes vehicles up on jacks or blocks, having missing or shattered windows, missing both front and back license plates, unsecured doors or trunk or an unattached trailer. These vehicles will be marked and if unchanged, towed.

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Vanessa Sandoval, chief of staff for Councilmember Sergio Jimenez who organized the presentation, said the changes to the abatement policy were spurred on by the pandemic creating a backlog in calls. She said the new program is efficient and frees up officers to patrol “hot spot” areas with a significant amount of abandoned, stolen and blighted vehicles.

The vehicle abatement program was also revised due to decreased staffing and financial resources, and an increase in the number of people living in their cars, Heyne said. Koury noted the city doesn’t tow inhabited vehicles. There are more than 6,700 homeless people in San Jose, an 11% increase since 2019, according to a recent tally.

Heyne said the department received 55,000-60,000 vehicle abatement requests annually in the years leading up to the pandemic, but only 7 % to 8% resulted in vehicles being towed before the program was updated. He said the cost of towing and impounding a vehicle is costly to owners, with fines exceeding $300 and daily storage fees about $100 per day.

The previous complaint-based system favored residents who had time, knew who to call and weren’t afraid of government, he said, which created an inequitable approach as some areas went under-reported. With officers proactively patrolling the entire city, this has helped alleviate the issue.

“Many of those calls were because a car was parked on somebody’s street, often in front of their home, and it hadn’t moved in three days,” Heyne said, adding after the department put a notice on a vehicle requiring it to move in 72 hours, it would, and then they’d received another call about the same car. “It wasn’t an effective use of taxpayer money or our time.”

While the program has been improved, Heyne said it may result in frustrated residents because they can’t get the department to investigate vehicles parked on their street for more than 72 hours. He said chances are if nothing is wrong with the vehicle, it won’t be towed anyway.

“California law allows us to take action against those stored vehicles, but it does not require we do so,” he said. “We want to focus on vehicles that are clearly not going to be able to drive away that pose health and safety hazards.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

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