Class action: 'Abandoned' cars towed, impounded in Chicago 'effectively stolen' by city

By Jonathan Bilyk | Jun 12, 2019

Eric Fischer [CC BY 2.0 (]

A new class action asserts Chicago City Hall owes millions of dollars in restitution to car owners whose vehicles were illegally towed and impounded, and often later sold for scrap.

On June 11, attorney Jacie Zolna and others with the firm of Myron M. Cherry & Associates, of Chicago, filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court against the city of Chicago.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of named plaintiff Andrea Santiago, seeks to force the city to pay out unspecified sums to two classes of perhaps tens of thousands of other car owners whose vehicles were either towed by the city after being declared abandoned, or  were later “disposed of by the City,” a phrase which often meant the cars were sold to tow companies, which later resold the vehicles for scrap and parts.

“In short, the City takes vehicles with no warning or opportunity to contest the claim of abandonment prior to the seizure,” the lawsuit said. “While the City allegedly sends a notice of impoundment to the owner after it has already been impounded, it fails to send the required additional notice when the City intends on disposing of the vehicle.

Jacie C. Zolna Myron M. Cherry Law & Associates, LLC

“As a result, thousands of cars are in effect stolen from citizens of Chicago and sold without proper notice and due process.”

The class action complaint comes about six weeks since the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice also filed a class action against City Hall over its vehicle towing and impoundment policies, which the lawsuit compared to a “racket.” In that complaint, filed in late April, the Institute for Justice asked a judge to find the city’s policies unconstitutional, as they alleged the policies violate the due process and property rights of those caught up in the impound system. The complaint accuses the city of allowing police to seize and impound vehicles for a variety of offenses and ordinance violations, and then slam the vehicle owners with thousands of dollars in fees to get their cars back – but only if they arrive in time to stop the city from selling it off first.

In the new class action, plaintiffs center their accusations on the city’s practice of towing and “disposing” of vehicles it deems “abandoned,” usually without first properly notifying the vehicle owners or giving them a chance to do anything about it.

The complaint related the experience of plaintiff Santiago. In the lawsuit, Santiago said her full-size van, which was specially fitted with special lift equipment to allow her to use the vehicle in her wheelchair, was marked as abandoned in June 2018 by city officials and then towed from the street where it was legally parked on the block on which Santiago lived.

The complaint said the city never notified her that the vehicle was either abandoned or towed. Nor, she said, did the city notify her before it sold the vehicle to United Road Towing, the company which had towed her van, which then sold the van for scrap to a salvage yard, where it was crushed.

According to the lawsuit, the city is required by law to notify vehicle owners by mail of the tow and impoundment, and then mail an additional notice to the owner before selling off an impounded vehicle.

“Employees within the Department of Streets and Sanitation are well aware of the additional notice requirements…,” the complaint said. “The Department of Streets and Sanitation nonetheless deliberately or with utter indifference fails to send an additional notice warning vehicle owners of the impending disposal of their vehicles.”

The complaint said Santiago’s experience during her run-in with the city’s vehicle impoundment system “is not an isolated incident, but rather is standard operating procedure by the City.”

The complaint noted in 2017, the city impounded nearly 94,000 vehicles, and “disposed” of 24,000 vehicles to United Road Towing, which paid $4 million in that year alone.

The lawsuit asserts the city’s actions violated the due process and property rights of the vehicle owners under the U.S. and Illinois constitutions.

The lawsuit asks the court to expand the action to include two classes of additional plaintiffs, including all vehicle owners whose cars the city deemed abandoned and towed, and everyone whose impounded vehicles were later “disposed of” by the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation.

The complaint asks the court to order the city to pay “restitution in an amount to be determined” to the vehicles’ owners, plus attorney fees.

The complaint also asks the court to order the city to send an additional notice of impoundment and disposal, before selling off any impounded car.

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Organizations in this Story

City of Chicago Myron M. Cherry and Associates, LLC

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