Brad French /for WBEZ
An aerial view of Chicago's impound lot on Sacramento Boulevard.
Brad French /for WBEZ
A new class-action lawsuit wants the city of Chicago to stop seizing cars used in certain crimes, and return vehicles to innocent owners who can't afford to pay the hefty impound fees.
These ballooning fees, which often accrue as owners navigate an inter-departmental web of bureaucracy, can leave residents owing thousands of dollars to get their car back even even if they were never charged, according to the suit and a WBEZ analysis of city data.
The lawsuit claims that's exactly what happened to 51-year-old mechanic Spencer Byrd when police stopped his 1996 Cadillac sedan for a broken turn signal on June 21, 2016 and found heroin on a passenger. Byrd was never charged, according to the lawsuit, but police seized his car and held it until a judge ordered it's release. But Byrd still doesn't have his car, according to the suit, because he first must pay more than $17,000 in storage and tow fees.
The suit challenges the way owners can avoid these fees, a process that requires a request be made in person for multiple administrative hearings and a finding of not liable under very narrow criteria. WBEZ found that between 2001 and 2017, more than 51 percent of owners were found liable because they didn't request a hearing.
These crime-related impounds and storage fees have saddled residents with millions in debt, according to a WBEZ analysis of the most recent data from the city's Department of Finance.
The highest storage fee on record is more than $69,000 for a drug arrest in 2010, according to Finance Department data.
The vehicle impoundment program has hit the South and West sides especially hard, and it has recently gotten the attention of 36th Ward Ald. Gilbert Villegas, who recently reintroduced legislation aimed at curbing tow fees and allowing for innocent owners to retrieve their vehicles.
"I want restitution for my vehicle," said plaintiff Veronica Walker-Davis.
Walker-Davis and her husband, Jerome Davis, took their vehicle to a body shop for repairs when a mechanic drove it and was stopped by the police, according to the lawsuit. Because the mechanic was driving on a revoked license, the suit said police impounded the car.
The bill reached $1,170, and when the couple couldn't pay up, the city disposed of their car, according to the lawsuit.
"I went to try and retrieve my vehicle and they would not release it to me, and I don't want anybody else to go through this type of thing," Veronica Walker Davis said. "It's been a nightmare."
Why are vehicles seized?
In Chicago, vehicles can be taken if police say it was used in crimes like solicitation, drug possession, driving under the influence, driving on a suspended license, or even littering or playing loud music.
A WBEZ investigation showed that the police department initiated more than 22,000 of these tows in 2017. The vast majority involved police stopping drivers for suspended licenses — and many of these suspensions are likely from ticket debt. Of these kinds of tows in 2017, the city eventually sold 8,295 of the vehicles and still left the owners with the bills.
The lawsuit cites reporting by WBEZ, which shows that the fines from the vehicle impoundment program have ballooned so much that in 2017 they reached more than $28 million – and are still growing.
This program is not the police department's asset forfeiture program — the official process police use to seize property of alleged criminals. Rather, Chicago's vehicle impoundment program runs parallel to the criminal justice process.
The suit, which was filed by the Institute for Justice, claims the city provides "constitutionally inadequate notice to car owners whose vehicles have been impounded, and to car owners whose vehicles will be disposed of, and of demanding car owners appear in person multiple times to challenge the impoundment of their vehicles."
Once a car is taken in this way, the owner must make a request for an administrative hearing in person within 15 days. Between 2001 and 2017, the owner failed to request a hearing in more than half of the 200,000 vehicle impoundment cases. That means the owners were automatically on the hook for all the fines and fees.
The Institute for Justice, which won a U.S. Supreme Court case that declared a low-level drug offense in Indiana violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against excessive fines, also claims in the suit that "Chicago's impound racket" violates the Constitution because it requires vehicle owners to pay administrative penalties prior to any final judgment and holds the vehicles until full payment is made.
"The city keeps cars basically as ransom until the owners pay all the fines and fees that are owed," said Diana Simpson, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. "That doesn't seem like a legitimate government interest at all. And the fact that there's no innocent owner defense. That's a real problem."
Representatives to the city's law department could not be reached for comment on the suit.
Does the suit have merit?
Simpson said the lawsuit challenges "the program as it applies to anybody who's been pulled into the vehicle impoundment program." That includes two dozen different offenses where an administrative penalty is associated with that impound.
Harold Krent, dean at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, said some aspects of the suit have merit.
"At the core is a policy challenge to the city for imposing such huge fines, and at the same time, allowing impoundment on such thin grounds," he said. "Most people would not say that you can impound a car if you don't have the right tag or the music is playing too loudly, and so the question then is whether that policy of the city veers into unconstitutionality.
"As applied, they've made some facially strong challenges that the statue can be applied in a way that doesn't give someone fair notice therefore violates due process or results in an excessive fine, which are violative of at least the Illinois Constitution and perhaps the federal one as well."
The suit is also asking the city to pay all legal fees plus unspecified additional compensation.
Elliott Ramos is an editor for WBEZ. Follow him @ChicagoEl.