Abandoned vehicles are not only unsightly and can serve as the source of repeated complaints from nearby neighbors and businesses, they can also prove to be a public health hazard in more extreme circumstances. Code Enforcement officers tasked with abating abandoned, inoperable, or wrecked vehicles are doing important work to keep City streets safe, therefore it’s imperative for these officers to follow proper procedures so that these public nuisances can be efficiently and effectively removed without creating legal liability for the City.
A vehicle is considered to be ‘abandoned’ if it is left on a highway, public property, or private property in such inoperable or neglected condition that the owner’s intent to relinquish all further rights or interests in it may be reasonably concluded. In reaching a reasonable conclusion, one must consider the amount of time the vehicle has not been moved, its condition, statements from the owner and witnesses, etc.
California Highway Patrol (CHP) Handbook
Additionally, California Vehicle Code section 22523 prohibits abandoning a vehicle on a highway, public property, and prohibits abandoning a vehicle on private property without permission from the property owner. (Veh. Code, § 22523.) California Vehicle Code section 22669 authorizes the removal of abandoned vehicles from a highway, public property, or private property. (Veh. Code, § 22669(a).) Local jurisdictions often have legal procedures within their local municipal code that outlines what notices must be issued before they can move forward with abating abandoned, inoperable, or wrecked vehicles.
Once the public agency is sure that the vehicle meets the standards within their local jurisdiction for removal and abatement and they have provided all legally required notices, best practice is to secure an abatement warrant before action can be taken against a vehicle on private property. The 4th Amendment protects against unwarranted intrusion upon private property by government agencies, therefore obtaining a warrant is a critical step in both ensuring a vehicle owner’s rights are respected while helping insulate the agency from liability and litigation when dealing with vehicles, especially those located on private property.
Gleaves v. Waters (1985) 175 Cal.App.3d 413 determined that when abating a public nuisance, enforcement agencies are required to get a warrant from the Court if they must enter private property to abate a public nuisance, even in extreme cases such as those including insect infestation. This ruling extends to vehicles as well. Additionally, Conner v. City of Santa Ana (9th Cir. 1990) 897 F.2d 1487 concluded that a City must obtain a warrant even if prior notice of a violation has been given to the owner. The courts are clear—agencies are well-advised to obtain a warrant to abate vehicles, especially on private property.
In seeking a warrant, agencies must comply with California Code of Civil Procedure sections 1822.50 – 1822.60. While these statutes were written regarding the authorization of inspection warrants, the case Flahive v. City of Dana Point (1999) 72 Cal.App.4th 241 held that the procedure for seeking an abatement warrant is the same as an inspection warrant.
To ensure a warrant sufficiently fulfills its purpose, the agency or officer preparing the warrant application should specifically request that the judge:
- Authorize entrance onto the property and abatement of the specific nuisance conditions identified (for purposes of vehicle abatement, its purpose is to enter private property to remove abandoned, inoperable, or wrecked vehicles).
- Authorize the warrant to be executed in the owner’s absence if necessary (without this, the owner could thwart the warrant simply by being absent).
- Authorize access if entry is not granted by property owners/occupants.
Agencies will want to keep in mind that warrants are only good for 14 days, so they should seek them with the expectation that they will execute and complete the vehicle abatement within that time frame. Additionally, in cases of vehicle abatement, prior notices must go directly to the vehicle/property owner. Once the warrant is secured, agencies should provide the property owner at least 24 hours’ notice prior to conducting the abatement unless they include facts in the warrant application that would justify not providing notice and the judge approves.
Vehicle abatement is critical to the health of a community, and if done properly should not cause legal headaches for the agency. Ultimately, it’s important to work with legal counsel to ensure an agency is not putting itself at legal risk while attempting to abate nuisance vehicles.
Scott Kalter is an Attorney at Silver & Wright LLP. Mr. Kalter’s practice areas include code enforcement, receiverships, civil rights litigation, nuisance abatement, municipal law, and criminal prosecution. Mr. Kalter has experience in general liability and commercial liability litigation. Prior to joining Silver & Wright LLP, Mr. Kalter worked for a multi-practice litigation defense firm and represented Fortune 500 companies in product liability claims, personal injury claims, professional liability claims, and contract claims. Get in touch with Attorney Scott Kalter by emailing him [email protected]