The city of Chicago has been hauled into court over its towing and vehicle impoundment practices, accused of forcing “even innocent (car) owners” to navigate a “labyrinthine” system that particularly hammers those who can least afford it and can illegally cost people tens of thousands of dollars or even the cars upon which they rely.
On April 29, attorneys with the Washington, D.C.-based civil rights legal organization Institute for Justice and attorney Robert J. Pavich, of Chicago, filed a class action complaint in Cook County Circuit Court against the city, asserting the city’s vehicle impound program is unconstitutional and violates the rights of those caught up in it.
“The City of Chicago impounds tens of thousands of cars each year, holding them until owners pay a compilation of fines and fees, both before and after the entry of final judgment,” the lawsuit says. “Owners find themselves in a labyrinthine impound system that is plagued by serious procedural flaws.
“Even innocent owners get caught up in this system, facing hefty fines and fees when someone else used their car to commit a crime without the car owner’s knowledge.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three named plaintiffs, identified as Jerome Davis, Veronica Walker-Davis and Spencer Byrd, as well as class of potentially many thousands of other car owners whose cars were seized by the city.
The complaint centers on the named plaintiffs’ experiences.
According to the complaint, the Davises took their car into a Chicago auto repair shop in June 2018. While the vehicle was there, a worker at the shop allegedly “took the car for a ride without permission.” He was pulled over by Chicago police, who determined the worker was driving on a revoked license.
Police then seized the car, and demanded the Davises pay $1,170 before the city would return the car. When the Davises did not pay fast enough, the city allegedly “disposed of the car.”
According to the complaint, Byrd’s car was seized by police in June 2016 when they pulled him over, allegedly for a broken turn signal, and allegedly found drugs on a passenger in his car. According to the complaint, Byrd, who had been hired to repair that other man’s car, was giving the man a ride home. The complaint asserts Byrd did not know the other man had drugs on him at the time.
A judge later ordered the city to return Byrd’s car to him, but the city refused, demanding he pay $17,000.
The city has also refused to allow Byrd to retrieve his work tools from the trunk of the car until he pays the demand.
The complaint characterizes the city’s impoundment systems as a “racket.”
Under city ordinances, police can seize vehicles for at least “two dozen different offenses,” including driving a vehicle for Uber or Lyft “without the car bearing a registration emblem;” driving a car “bearing a false, stolen, or altered temporary registration permit;” driving a car containing drugs; driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs; dumping trash from a car onto a street, waterway or private property; driving a car containing spray paint; drag racing; playing sounds from a car that can be heard more than 75 feet away; parking while using a “fake or stolen disability tag;” and others.
The call of whether to impound the vehicle, however, is left to police officers.
Once the vehicle is in city custody, the lawsuit says, fines and fees can mount quickly, with new fees assessed for storage and other charges each day, “adding up to nearly $1,000 for a single month’s storage.”
Further, the complaint says, those whose vehicles have been impounded have little opportunity to defend themselves, as the city’s hearings system makes it difficult for nearly everyone. The complaint notes it could be weeks before the owner of a vehicle can decipher what has happened, yet they only have 15 days to demand a hearing. And that demand must be made in writing, in person at the city’s Department of Administrative Hearings in downtown Chicago.
“Many people are forced to take time off work to simply request a hearing,” the complaint said.
Owners who don’t request hearings in time can then lose their cars, as the city is entitled under its ordinance to enter a default order, which “allows the City to dispose of the car immediately, meaning that the City may sell it for scrap, sell it at auction, or keep it for police use.” The city is not required to notify owners of the disposal of their vehicle, the lawsuit notes.
If owners request hearings, they must then navigate multiple hearings before lawyers hired by the city, identified as administrative law officers. However, car owners are only allowed to present three viable defenses at the hearings: The vehicle was stolen and had been reported stolen; the car had been sold prior to the impoundment; or the “vehicle was operating as a ‘common carrier’ and the person in control of the vehicle did not know about the violation.”
“No defense is available for an innocent owner of a car who did not know about and was not involved in the offense if she does not fit within those three available defenses,” the lawsuit said.
“Unless she can successfully prove one of those three defenses, an owner who is completely innocent of the underlying offense is forced to pay fees and fines for the activity of someone else.”
Anyone refusing to pay the fines and fees, whether they get their car back or not, can still be subject to collection actions by the city, the lawsuit said.
The complaint, citing reporting published by journalist Elliott Ramos of radio station WBEZ, noted the city in 2017 alone converted 22,000 impounded cars into $28 million in fines and fees
The complaint said the city has established a “pattern of behavior” which violate the due process and property rights those caught up in the impound system.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare the city’s impound system unconstitutional and void; to issue an injunction barring the city from enforcing penalties and fees against “innocent owners;” to order the city to return impounded cars to “innocent owners;” to refund “all administrative penalties paid” by “innocent owners;” and to pay attorneys fees.