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Can the police in California seize your car (i.e. tow it from where it's parked) without a warrant?

  • It should be noted that the fourth amendment doesn't explicitly require warrants; it merely prohibits "unreasonable" seizures (and searches) and places limits on the conditions for issuing warrants. – phoog Sep 17 '17 at 15:59
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This is allowed under the police's "community caretaking" function. See South Dakota v. Opperman 428 U.S. 364 (1976):

To permit the uninterrupted flow of traffic and in some circumstances to preserve evidence, disabled or damaged vehicles will often be removed from the highways or streets at the behest of police engaged solely in caretaking and traffic control activities.

Police will also frequently remove and impound automobiles which violate parking ordinances and which thereby jeopardize both the public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic. The authority of police to seize and remove from the streets vehicles impeding traffic or threatening public safety and convenience is beyond challenge.

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The legal basis for a Police/Sheriff in California to tow/impound a vehicle will be based on the California Vehicle Code (and not on federal case law). As an example, California Vehicle Code 22953 permits immediate tow of vehicles under certain conditions.

In addition, each City in California has instituted Municipal Codes which further protects the rights of Citizens from unlawful parking of vehicles which cause nuisance.

In addition to the CVC and Muni Code, each Police Department has its own policies which are complimentary to CVC and Muni code detailing how the police handles vehicle impounds.

  • While seizures must be authorized by California vehicle code, they also must not be "unreasonable" under the fourth amendment to the federal constitution. This means that federal case law is absolutely relevant in determining whether such seizures are legal. – phoog Sep 17 '17 at 15:51
  • @phoog: While that's true in principle, state and municipal codes are presumed to be legal unless they are found to be illegal by a court. It doesn't seem very helpful to qualify every reference to Code by a clause of the form, "Of course, this Code is only valid insofar as it complies with superordinate codes and applicable constitutions, treaties, etc." – feetwet Sep 17 '17 at 17:57
  • @feetwet sure, but federal rulings on other municipal codes are nonetheless going to establish constitutional principles that will discourage challenges to the code in question. My comment was intended to rebut the apparent assertion that the basis of K-C's answer is irrelevant. For a California seizure to be legal, it must comply with both California law and federal law. (Furthermore, some seizures could be unreasonable even if the statute that authorizes them is constitutional.) – phoog Sep 17 '17 at 18:09

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