Tow Jam: When the City Makes a Victim Pay For the Crime

One misty August morning, Matthew Couzens woke up to find his blue 1994 Honda Accord missing from where he parked it along Hampshire Street between 18th and Mariposa streets. It had been gone for about 24 hours when a parking enforcement official came upon it while ticketing for street cleaning four blocks away, on 18th and Vermont streets.

Couzens is a jazz musician who plays under the name Randy Johnson. He was recording in his studio in Alameda when the San Francisco Police Department called him with a nearly impossible task: Come get your car within 20 minutes. Otherwise, they'd have the car towed to an impound center, and make Couzens foot the bill.

SFPD doesn't see a problem with this. "Twenty minutes I think is very generous for us to stand by," Officer Carlos Manfredi says.

When asked, though, how exactly someone is supposed to get anywhere in the city in 20 minutes, the cops had no suggestions. "They need to figure that out," Manfredi says.

In response to the towing threat he received on his voicemail, Couzens called a local dispatch office. However, he says, he didn't feel much better after the "detached, cold, and irritated" phone call.

The police and taxpayers may not want to allocate time and money, respectively, for cops to babysit a car for more than 20 minutes and blow off more urgent calls, Manfredi explains. Still, Couzens feels doubly victimized: first by the thieves, then by the police.

He does try to see the humor in it, saying he likes to think that his car was borrowed because either "someone had a life-threatening emergency ... [or] someone just watched Harold and Maude ... [or] perhaps someone just walked up to the wrong car after a late night out and drove it home," he said. "I hope someone proves this.... I can go have a drink and laugh with them about it."

While Couzens ultimately saved his car from being towed (his sister picked it up), he now feels "that the SFPD lacks altruism," he says. "It says 'to protect and serve' on most police cars and buildings. I guess they left out the part about making victims of crime feel re-victimized by their behavior and/or attitude. I guess that is too long to put on a bumper."

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This is infuriating to me. A very similar situation happened to me, but it went a few steps further since I tried to assert my rights as a victim and fight the cost. Well, low and behold that just ended up costing me more. Here's my story published in the Examiner a couple months back:


The city and officials are aware of this problem but they don't care. I thought the matter had Scott Wiener's attention but he had higher priorities and brushed it off until I stopped bugging him. When I last contacted him to ask on the progress on getting things changed he stated "There hasn't been [any progress].  I'll follow up, but SFPD doesn't seem inclined to change the policies."

That was July 17th and any changes to the process of auto theft victims seems to be dead in the water.


The city towing contract with Auto Return and the policy on retrieving stolen cars preys on people of modest income. If you can't afford to get your car out of hock (almost $500 for after one day) they'll just sell it off at auction.


Something needs to be done. I don't know if we need to get a class action lawsuit going or what but something really needs to be done.


Got an update from Supe Wiener today: "I actually have assigned an aide to this to work on eliminating the MTA fee for stolen cars that get towed."

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