Chicago City Hall | Jonathan Bilyk
CHICAGO — A new federal class action alleges the city of Chicago illegally sells towed and impounded vehicles.
On Feb. 25, attorney Jacie Zolna and others with the firm of Myron M. Cherry & Associates, of Chicago, filed a complaint on behalf of named plaintiffs Danyetta Walker and Joseph Walawski. The complaint is similar to a class action the same lawyers filed in Cook County Circuit Court in January 2019.
The federal complaint also names United Road Towing as a defendant and opens with an allegation, based on a 2019 WBEZ report showing the city towed 19,665 legally parked cars in 2017 under a city ordinance concerning unpaid tickets. If the vehicle owners don’t pay the ticketed amount, as well as the towing and impound fees, the city either uses the car in its fleet or sells it through auction or “in the vast majority of cases” to a scrap dealer.
Jacie C. Zolna Myron M. Cherry Law & Associates, LLC | http://cherry-law.com
“The city does not compensate an owner in any way when it takes a vehicle in this manner,” according to the complaint. “Even if it sells the vehicle, none of the proceeds are paid to the owner. Incredibly, the city does not even offset the owner’s debts by the amount of the sale. It simply takes it all for itself and leaves the former owner’s debt as it is.”
Branding as unconstitutional the ordinance allowing the city to tow vehicles when their owners have unpaid tickets — two for more than one year or three at any one time — the complaint said Chicago “has used its unique status as a government to grant itself a suite of debt collecting powers that that would make the most cynical private debt collector blush.” The city’s own budget documents estimate it collected $345 million in fines and penalties in 2018, or 9 percent of municipal operating revenue. In 2017 the city made more than $4 million by selling towed cars to United Towing, though the value of those impounded vehicles allegedly exceeded $22 million.
Although the City Council in September amended the ordinance to grant motorists “additional compliance time,” the complaint said, “it appears that the only extension available is one additional day.” The complaint further alleges the towing policy has neither a law enforcement nor a public safety function because the tows only happen after underlying tickets are completely finalized. The complaint also alleged the city ordinance violates state law and its own municipal code stipulations on giving vehicle owners notice of an impoundment or pending disposal.
United towed Walker’s 2000 Chrysler Concorde on Feb. 27, 2019, and Walawski’s 2016 Nissan Sentra on May 19, 2018, according to the complaint. Walawski said the city sold his car to United for $204.48 although it “was relatively new and in excellent condition,” and despite never mailing him notice of the intent to dispose of the car. He still owes PNC Bank more than $17,000 for the vehicle. He had used the car for work as a delivery driver.
The plaintiffs call for creating a class that would include owners of vehicles towed under the disputed ordinance and asks the court to declare the city’s policy in violation of the Fifth Amendment protection against private property being taken for public use without just compensation. The complaint also includes counts of unjust enrichment and unreasonable seizure against the city and United Road Towing and seeks an injunction preventing the city from disposing of impounded vehicles without giving notice to the owners. A jury trial is demanded.