Owning a vehicle comes with certain rights. However, those privileges can be forfeited through certain actions of said driver. Sam Houston State University director of Student Legal and Mediation Services Gene Roberts, discusses these rights and how students can retain them.
According to Roberts, just the simple act of driving a vehicle, the very things cars were built for, can limit the rights of drivers.
“Vehicle owners have rights to their vehicles, including rights that are associated with the possession of any tangible thing,” Roberts said. “Driving a vehicle on a public roadway can limit the owner’s rights because of the license provided by the state to drive the vehicle, but even with limits, a vehicle owner has rights.”
Roberts said that one classic example of this is when an officer pulls over a vehicle for a traffic stop, then asks to search the vehicle and as a result of the search, finds contraband. However, to request a search the officer must have a reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that a violation of an ordinance or statute has occurred to stop the vehicle. An example of a reasonable suspicion would be something like not wearing a seatbelt, speeding or not obeying traffic control devices.
“A police officer may ask to search a vehicle and the owner has the right to respectfully refuse the search,” he said. “But the courts have held that vehicles don’t have the same level of privacy as a home and police are allowed to search vehicles without a warrant if the officer has probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence or contraband. The owner should never interfere or obstruct a search, but if the owner agrees to a search of the vehicle, the owner’s rights have been waived, unless the owner subsequently reasserts them.”
Another potential issue vehicle owner’s face, while their vehicle is stationary, is the possibility for their car to be towed, either for various reasons or illegally. However, according to the Texas Occupations Code, an unauthorized vehicle cannot be towed or booted from a parking facility—a place that is restricted for parking—unless a sign that complies with state law is present. Criteria for said sign is that it must be “facing and conspicuously visible” to a driver that enters the facility.
“Generally, private property owners have the right to remove a vehicle that is on their property if it is there without the owner’s permission,” Roberts said. “[If a student believes his or her car has been towed] determine if the car has been towed or stolen. If the vehicle was in a parking facility, the required sign must contain a telephone number where the vehicle’s owner can locate the vehicle.”
According to Roberts, facilities with are out-of-compliance with Texas law, resulting in an illegal towing instance may result in serious repercussions for both the facility and the towing company at fault.
“The Occupations Code allows someone who has had a vehicle illegally towed to file an action and can seek damages for an illegal removal and recovery of towing fees,” he said. “If found to have intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly violated the Occupations Code, the towing company can be liable for $1,000 in statutory damages plus three times the fees assessed for the towing, removal, storage or booting of the vehicle.”
If students should find themselves in a legal predicament, Roberts’ advice is to act quickly and utilize the resources his office provides.
“Our office provides free legal consultations for students who have legal issues, including traffic tickets, crime, employment, and landlord-tenant matters,” Roberts said. “Make an appointment to see me as soon as possible. In many situations, legal issues have very short time limits to respond or otherwise act. Once you are in a legal situation, call our office or use our online appointment system to make an appointment to consult with the full-time attorney on campus for students.”
Roberts said that in order to avoid problems with being illegally towed, students need to stay alert and aware of their car’s surroundings.
“Be aware of where you are parking,” he said. “Make sure there are no signs that prohibit parking or warn of towing. Also, make sure to not park in spaces that have the international symbol for access (or the international wheelchair symbol) if you are not authorized to park in those locations.”
For more information, contact Student Legal and Mediation Services at 936-294-1717 or visit the office in Suite 330 of the Lowman Student Center.