Did your car get towed in Kansas City for no good reason? You deserve a refund

A class-action lawsuit has been filed seeking to force Kansas City to refund towing fees for drivers who are found not guilty of violations. It’s a start.
A class-action lawsuit has been filed seeking to force Kansas City to refund towing fees for drivers who are found not guilty of violations. It’s a start. Big Stock Photo

Kansas City should use a recently-filed federal lawsuit as an opportunity to review its fines and procedures for parking violations and towing regulations.

Those policies are now under the microscope of a federal court. In a class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday, Dyanna Black claimed she was improperly towed from a parking spot near 16th and Wyandotte streets in February 2016.

Black says it cost her $265 to get the car back from the tow lot.

Three months later, Black contested her parking ticket — and won. A municipal judge found she had parked legally and should not have been towed.

Black understandably tried to get her $265 back but was told there was no procedure to do so. The lawsuit seeks to force the city to establish such a refund program.

The need is obvious. It’s absurd that an innocent driver has to shell out hundreds of dollars just to get his or her car back. The process assumes the driver’s guilt, which turns justice on its head.

And towing fees are a particular hardship on lower-income Kansas Citians. More than $200 is real money.

City Hall should settle the lawsuit now by promising to enact a new towing policy that promises quick refunds for drivers wrongly cited for parking violations.

But the issue with towing improperly parked cars is bigger than refunds. City Council members should take the opportunity to review the police department’s standards for hauling cars away without their owners’ knowledge.

A police officer can order a tow for obvious reasons: A car has been abandoned, or wrecked, or is involved in a crime. Cars can be towed from fire lanes. No one argues with that authority.

But officers can also order a tow from public property when a vehicle is “parked illegally,” according to the department’s published regulations.

That standard is extraordinarily broad, giving officers wide discretion in towing vehicles. Too much discretion. Not every illegally parked car needs to be towed away.

There should be a way to help drivers understand when a tow is likely and when it isn’t.

Currently, the city prohibits towing from most private parking lots unless there’s a warning for scofflaws: Park here illegally, the signs must say, and you can be towed. Yet it doesn’t require a similar sign for city streets.

If there are public streets where illegal parking is a danger to others, or impedes traffic, the city could easily post tow-away warning signs. Those signs would put drivers on notice that a costly penalty is likely if their car is improperly parked.

At the same time, on less traveled streets, a citation may be all that is needed.

Kansas City is in the middle of a crackdown on illegal parking downtown. We’re not opposed to that effort. Obeying the law is important.

But the punishment must fit the crime — and justice must be equal. Denying refunds to innocent drivers and towing cars unnecessarily fall short of those goals, and City Hall should address both problems.