Can code enforcement move my car from the back yard

Reviewed: June 12, 2024

Visitor Question: Can a code enforcement officer move my car from my back yard of my property?

Editors Reply: The answer depends completely on what your state law and your local laws say. Let's look at the possibilities.

The most drastic action that a city (you didn't say, but we are going to call the unit of local government a city even though it could be a county) can take is called a summary abatement. The word abatement here simply means an action that a property owner, government, or tenant takes to resolve a code violation.

Now if the car in question is full of poisonous snakes or bees, or if it teetering so precariously on the edge of a cliff that a couple of 10-year olds who happened to get into the car could shake the car off the cliff, then you might have a situation that your city would be allowed to fix on an emergency basis. Usually a state law and a local ordinance that allow summary abatements would even allow the city to charge you for their trouble.

So if this is an emergency, yes, the city can remove your car from your back yard or anywhere on your property, and whether it is an employee or a contractor is irrelevant. They still have the right to do it.

But our examples are pretty ridiculous. Let's just assume that the car in question does not present any sort of real emergency situation, but is an ordinary circumstance that a reasonable code enforcement officer might call a nuisance.

In that case, in almost all states and cities, the city would have to take other steps before having someone remove the car.

If you have been ignoring notice letters, warning letters, citations from police or a code enforcement office, or the orders of a hearing officer or municipal judge or other court, then your city also may have earned the right to undertake the abatement itself without any further notice to or consultation with you about when and how they do it.

Often a city will have a whole separate abatement hearing when they are about to do this. You would receive a notice of the hearing and have the right to come and tell them why they should not take this action. Although it would be pretty late for you to take responsibility, most cities will be pretty lenient if you do so at any time before someone come to actually take the car away.

Now let's say that you have not been ignoring these various steps of the process. (We don't mean to say that your city will have all of the above steps in its process, but it will have at least one and probably more than one opportunity for you to defend yourself and to agree with the city on a way for you to comply with the law if it is decided that your car is indeed a nuisance or a code violation.)

Perhaps you have appeared at a hearing with a hearing officer or a civil municipal judge, and you essentially lost your case. In other words, it was decided that your car is a violation. Then you were given a certain number of days to correct the situation or face further penalties. Penalties often include fines and even jail, so most people decide to comply pretty fast. But let's say that you wanted to keep fighting, or that you were physically or mentally unable to take the actions required for you to remove the car or move it to an acceptable place.

In these situations where you have not complied within the given time frame, it is also possible that your local law gives the city the authority to conduct the abatement after a certain amount of time. That abatement action may or may not require you to pay for the expenses involved in moving the car.

Also you might still be guilty of a civil infraction, as it would be called, which would be similar to a traffic ticket in its implications. In some states and situations, you might even be guilty of a misdemeanor. It is for all of these reasons that we don't advise residents to mess around with code enforcement.

If you don't think what you are doing is a code violation, make your strongest case as early as possible after you have received a notice or warning. If you lose, promptly comply yourself or enter into a compliance agreement with the city about when and how you can take care of the matter.

It is only when code enforcement processes drag on and on that a well-run government takes an action such as having a code enforcement officer move a car.

Now what we have been describing is a well-run government. But if you feel that you did not get any proper notice or opportunity for correcting the situation or making the case about why your car is not a code violation, be sure to complain to elected officials and city staff. Elected officials in this case might mean the mayor or a city councilperson. You might have a city manager who supervises the code enforcement office, or that office might have a director who supervises the code enforcement officer. Make all of these people aware of what happened.

If you get some agreement from people in charge that the code enforcement officer was in error, ask to have the car brought back if it was hauled away, or ask to have it moved back to where you would like if it was simply moved from one place to another.

In sum, the answer to your question really depends on your location and what actions you and your city have taken leading up to this point.

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