A July lawsuit filed against the City of Santa Monica alleges that current vehicle towing policies — in particular, the impounding of vehicles operated by unlicensed drivers — violate constitutional protections.

The complaint, Reyes Contreras Murcia v. City of Santa Monica, claims damages on the grounds that Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD) seizing the vehicles of unlicensed drivers and impounding them violates the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth, Fifth and 14th amendments, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Murcia is represented by attorney Christian Contreras.

Defendants in the lawsuit include the City as well as SMPD Chief Ramon Batista (both as an individual and “in his official capacity,”) City Manager David White (also as an individual and “in his official capacity,”) All City Tow Service and several “Does.”

Murcia, the plaintiff, alleges that on July 23, 2022, SMPD officers unconstitutionally seized his vehicle after he was found to be operating it without a valid driver’s license. 

“On Saturday, July 23, 2022, Plaintiff Reyes Murcia was and still is the registered owner of a 2006 Chevrolet Tahoe … On such date, Defendant City Of Santa Monica Police Department impounded Reyes Murcia’s Chevy Tahoe which he used to transport goods and work as a street vendor,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiff Reyes Murcia’s Chevy Tahoe was impounded after two Santa Monica police officers stopped him in a parking lot in Santa Monica for having a broken rear taillight. During the stop, Plaintiff Reyes Murcia was asked for his California driver’s license but was only able to produce an expired Mexican driver’s license.” 

The lawsuit claims Murcia’s vehicle was “not a traffic hazard nor was it a danger to the community.” The complaint goes on to state that Murcia requested his brother, whom he claimed holds a valid driver’s license, be given permission to come collect the vehicle, but that request was denied and the Chevy Tahoe was towed.

Following the seizure of Murcia’s vehicle, the complaint alleges, Murcia was told he must pay a 30-day impound fee of $1,128 as well as a $159.90 fee to release the vehicle. He also allegedly was told he would not be able to pick up the vehicle without a valid license.

According to the complaint, after 30 days, All City Tow will “sell the vehicle at a lien sale in order to collect funds due it for the towing and storage,” if Murcia does not pay the fees. Therefore, the lawsuit, filed July 28, also requests injunctive relief that would block the vehicle, still being held by All City Tow, from being sold as the lawsuit progresses through U.S. District Court. According to the suit, Murcia’s Chevy Tahoe “is his only vehicle and [he] uses the vehicle for his work as a street vendor.”

The lawsuit proposes to name Murcia “class representative” in a class action lawsuit that, if successful, would require all those in similar situations to have their vehicles returned to them without fees incurred.

The complaint described Murcia as a “street vendor,” but the lawsuit did not specify if Murcia held a business license to legally operate as a vendor in the City of Santa Monica. A search on the City website did not appear to list Reyes Murcia or Reyes Contreras Murcia as a business license holder in the City and spokespeople for the City could not immediately verify whether Murcia held a license to operate as a street vendor.

In response to the lawsuit, on Friday evening, Aug. 5, the City of Santa Monica issued a brief statement that it was aware of the pending class action civil rights lawsuit and that it was unable to provide details.

“The City of Santa Monica and Santa Monica Police Department are committed to the values of accountability, equity, inclusion, and safety, and to protecting and supporting communities of color in our City,” the statement said. “Our police department is deeply committed to protecting our City in accordance with the U.S. Constitution and treating all with dignity and respect. Our officers are professional and compassionate and dedicate themselves to maintaining public safety while building trust in our community.”

emily@smdp.com