Chicago

Chicago Impounds Innocent People's Cars and Soaks Them in Fines. Now It's Getting Sued

Following a Reason investigation into Chicago's punitive vehicle impound program, a new lawsuit alleges the practice violates Chicagoans constitutional rights.

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Chicago impounds thousands of people's cars a year, including cars owned by people who have committed no crime, and forces them through an expensive, bureaucratic maze to get their car back. This process violates residents' constitutional rights, according to a new lawsuit filed against the city Monday evening.

The Institute for Justice filed a class-action lawsuit in Illinois state court alleging that Chicago's impound program violates residents' guarantee of due process, as well as protections against excessive fines and unreasonable seizures, under both the Illinois and U.S. constitutions.

"Owners find themselves in a labyrinthine impound system that is plagued by serious procedural flaws," the suit says. "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."

A Reason investigation published last year described how Chicago's punitive impound program soaks people in fines and fees and deprives them indefinitely of their transportation, whether or not they actually committed an offense, in an effort to reduce its massive annual budget deficits. It also operates independently from the state's courts, meaning that even in cases where a defendant beats a criminal charge and/or a civil asset forfeiture case, they can still be found liable for thousands of dollars in fines and storage fees, and have their cars held until they pay or relinquish them to the city, by Chicago.

That's exactly what happened to Spencer Byrd, a 51-year-old resident of Harvey, Illinois, whose impound case was featured by Reason. Byrd is now a named plaintiff in the Institute for Justice lawsuit.

Byrd, a part-time auto mechanic, says he was giving a client a lift in his 1996 Cadillac DeVille one evening in June, 2016, when he was pulled over by Chicago police and searched. Byrd was clean, but his passenger, a man he says he'd never met before, had heroin in his pocket.

The police released Byrd without charging him with a crime, but his car was seized and dually claimed by both the Cook County State Attorney's Office and the city of Chicago. He's been fighting for nearly three years to get it back.

A state judge ordered Byrd's car released after he filed a financial hardship motion, but the city refused to return it, claiming he owed money under the city's municipal code.

Even after a state judge declared Byrd innocent in the civil forfeiture case against his Cadillac in Illinois state court, he was still found liable for violating Chicago's municipal code in the city's administrative hearings court, which has a low standard of evidence and almost no procedural protections for defendants.

In the meantime, Byrd's livelihood has suffered. His primary trade is carpentry, but his tools have been locked in his car since it was impounded. The city has refused to let him retrieve them, or his car, until he pays his accumulated fines and fees, which according to the lawsuit now stand at more than $17,000.

"If you do wrong, fine, but I didn't do nothing wrong," Byrd tells Reason. "I should have had my car released to me with no fines or anything—thank you, sorry for the inconvenience, and I'm on my merry way—instead of trying to get some type of revenue from me. I was proven innocent, and they still didn't want to act right."

Byrd is far from alone. A WBEZ analysis of Chicago's massive impound program found that in 2017 alone, the city impounded more than 22,000 cars for violations of its municipal code, which includes dozens of impoundable offenses ranging from drug possession to drag racing to having illegal fireworks.

The fines for those violations are steep, ranging from $500 to $3,000, figures that don't include towing and storage fees, which accumulate at $20 a day for the first five days, and $35 a a day after that. Given that these cases can take weeks, if not months, to wind through the system, the fees can often exceed the fines themselves.

A Reason analysis of data from the Chicago Administrative Hearings Department showed Chicago fined motorists $17 million over a 12-month period between 2017 and 2018. About $10 million of those fines were for driving on a suspended license, and more than $3 million were for drug offenses like the one that resulted in the impoundment of Byrd's car.

Chicago can hold seized cars indefinitely. There is also no statute of limitations on impound fines and fees in Chicago. The debt can follow someone for life.

Chicago's impound racket is both easy to be ensnared in and hard to escape. There are only three narrow defenses for those whose cars are impounded for municipal violations in Chicago, and being an innocent owner isn't one of them.

"You're talking about a lot of money for something that you may not have been responsible for," says Institute for Justice attorney Diana Simpson. "The lack of an innocent owner protection really violates two different kinds of constitutional protections: both the excessive fines and fees protection, as well as due process."

Jerome Davis and Veronica Walker-Davis // Institute for Justice

The case of two of the other named plaintiffs in the Institute for Justice lawsuit, Jerome Davis and Veronica Walker-Davis, exemplifies what critics say is the procedural nightmare people face when their cars are impounded in Chicago.

In May of last year, the couple dropped their 2006 Lexus off at a Chicago body shop following an accident. When the repairs dragged on for longer than expected, the shop first said it was waiting for parts. Eventually the couple learned the truth: An employee of the shop had driven their car on a suspended license and was pulled over. Their Lexus was now sitting at one of Chicago's six impound lots.

The city had never informed the couple that their car had been impounded, according to the lawsuit, and Veronica Walker-Davis had to travel in person to the city's administrative hearings building to request a hearing to fight the impoundment.

"I'm thinking that I'm just going to go and give a statement, show proof that my car wasn't in my possession, and everything will be okay, but in fact it turned into a nightmare," she says. "I felt like I was pretty much in The Twilight Zone."

The Twilight Zone is Room 110 in Chicago's administrative hearings building, a small courtroom where the city churns through its impound cases at a rate of roughly one every 10-15 minutes, five days a week.

Because the hearings are civil matters, not criminal, there is no right to a lawyer, and Walker-Davis found herself standing across from a lawyer for the city of Chicago. She tried to explain to the administrative hearing judge what had happened, but it made no difference. She was found liable for violating the city code and would have to pay nearly $2,500 to get their car out of impound.

"I felt like crap," she says. "I felt like a criminal."

In late March of this year, the couple managed to find a pro bono lawyer and negotiate their fine down to $1,170, but when they arrived with cash in hand, they were told the registration on their car had lapsed in the more than six months it had been sitting in an impound lot, and the city would not release it without a current registration.

An email between a lawyer for Chicago and Veronica Walker-Davis. // Reason

Walker-Davis rushed the next day to get their registration renewed, which cost another $101, and got the city to agree to extend the deadline for the couple to pay their impound fines. In an email provided to Reason, a lawyer for Chicago's law department wrote to the couple: "The City will agree to extend the time for you to pay the settlement agreement to 4/12/19."

But when the couple showed up to retrieve their car on April 10, it was gone. The city had already sold it off. According to WBEZ, Chicago sells many of the cars it impounds for paltry amounts under $200, and almost all of them are sold to a single towing contractor.

The Institute for Justice is hoping that a recent Supreme Court case will bolster their claim that Chicago's rapacious impound program fines people so much and affords them so few avenues of escape that it violates the Constitution.

The Supreme Court ruled earlier this year in Timbs v. Indiana—the case of an Indiana man whose $42,000 Land Rover was seized for a drug felony—that states are bound by the Eighth Amendment's protections against excessive fines and fees. Although the Court did not define exactly what constitutes "excessive," it opened the door for civil liberties groups to press the issue.

In 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Los Angeles' automatic 30-day impound law, ruling that it amounted to an unconstitutional seizure under the Fourth Amendment. While state and federal courts have repeatedly upheld Chicago's impound program in the past, the Institute for Justice hopes that it can build on the recent Supreme Court decision, as well as other cases that have addressed the government's use of fines and fees to generate revenue.

"We think we've got a really great chance, and we think the courts will agree with us that the system is just too much," Simpson says. "It's bringing in an entirely huge amount of money for the city of Chicago—there's about 22,000 cars that go in through this system each year—and that's not the role of the government."

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  1. “According to WBEZ, Chicago sells many of the cars it impounds for paltry amounts under $200, and almost all of them are sold to a single towing contractor.”

    Wait, are you saying there’s something suspicious about that? It sounds above-board to me.

    1. Of course its above-board…its the Chicago way.

      1. So, I get why Chicago is OK with all this. The city government is getting the cash, and the cronies who are getting fat off of this are greasing all the right palms.

        But where is the state? Shouldn’t Illinois be on top of this? There has to be some state corruption laws that are being violated by seizing that many cars and funneling them to a single vendor. And where’s the FBI? The feds have to have some way of cracking down on local governments who are just stealing from their citizens, right? Wasn’t that part of what Holder was up to down in Ferguson?

        1. Perhaps you can’t expect much from the state government. The last nine Illinois governors have gone to prison and the current governor is under federal criminal investigation.

          1. True story* – there’s a wing in Fort Leavenworth dedicated to housing imprisoned ex-Illinois governors.

            *Not really

        2. Illinois state government is pretty much the most corrupt state government in the country, and its had one guy as king for pretty much the last 40 years.

          Mike Madigan runs the joint.
          He decides who gets to run for statewide elections, and many Chicago/Cook County elections. As head of the state party, he decides who gets funding from the party.
          In the IL house, he decides what bills will be allowed to reach the floor for votes, and which will die without ever having even been given to the body.

          Up until last year his daughter was Attorney General for the state. Needless to say, she had little interest in investigating crooked practices enacted by the people her daddy appointed to run stuff in Chicago.

          It may seem like hyperbole, but it isn’t.

          Why haven’t the feds taken him down? Cause he was taught by his mentors in the Machine how to be corrupt but keep your hands legally clean.

        3. “Wasn’t that part of what Holder was up to down in Ferguson”

          No Holder was propagating a Democrat meme – that there are a bunch of racist police. The Democrats being interested in only power, have no intentions of going after government officials in Democrat strongholds.

          It’s crap like this, that leads me to donate to the Institute for Justice. Freedom requires vigilance, because greedy people will seek government power to fatten their wallets.

      2. If he pulls a tow truck, you pull a gun. He tries to tow your car away, you blow the shit out of the tow truck. That’s the Chicago way.

        1. 22,000 cars that go in through this system each year

          Sounds like enough for a decent uprising, there.

    2. >”Chicago’s punitive impound program soaks people in fines and fees and deprives them indefinitely of their transportation, whether or not they actually committed an offense, in an effort to reduce its massive annual budget deficits.”

      This is how generous welfare states end up hurting the citizens they were supposed to help. The city offers generous social programs, then goes into crippling debt. They try to tax their way out of it, but can’t. They can’t take away their wealth transfer programs or they get voted out. So they use things like the auto impound program to make up the revenue shortfalls, ruining the lives of the very same people they intended to help.

      But, hey, as long as they keep voting for you, right?

    3. I grew up in Chicago, and it is now , to use Trump’s term, a shit hole. Rahm Emmanuel helped make it that. it is no wonder that people are fleeing Chicago and other big northern cities, as their politicians have declared war on those they pretend to represent. Rahm is and Obama wanna be, that is, do what I say or I’ll tax the piss out of you. Praise God I no longer live in Chicago. BTW, formerly nice suburbs of Chicago are going to hell, and for the same reason: Wicked, power-hungry shits like Emmanuel want what they want, and FUCK the residents. May God NOT have mercy on their souls, presuming they even have a soul.

      1. I’d say the voters in Chicago are getting what they voted for, good and hard (excluding those who voted for limited government politicians – they’re on the receiving end of two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner, and are partly responsible for choosing to live there).

  2. You remember when you were young and you first heard some kook saying that the government is just organized crime dressed up in fancy clothes?

    Yeah…… amazing that people still find that view kooky, isn’t it?

    1. Government is the worst problem we face. Climate change, resource over-usage, giant corporations, whatever other bugaboo someone thinks is a priority… All of them pale compared to the negative impact government has on people.

    2. Actually, the first time I heard that, it was coming out of my own mouth.

  3. How is it that the judgment of the state court clearing Mr. Byrd of liability did not result in the release of his car by the municipal government? Since municipalities have no constitutional independence and are merely branches of the state, I would think that a municipal court enforcing a municipal policy would be over-ridden by a state court.

    1. Chicago is a home rule city. Not sure if that matters re your question.

  4. This is one of those stories that sounds too bad to be true, especially since the City sold the Davis’s car during their claims process and Reason is literally the only outlet I can find that has mentioned this story.

    1. You sound desperate to believe government does no bad.

      1. No. It’s just that if this was a drama, I would tell the author to dial it back a bit because it was sounding like a wacky comedy. True, truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense. However, this is getting into absurdist levels of transparent corruption.

      2. I think you forget where we are. Nobody here believes government does no bad.

        What I do believe is that when I see a relatively unverified story that isn’t covered anywhere else, not even in local Chicago news, and the story is written in a one-sided narrative style, that’s when you should be skeptical of individuals making claims about the actions of others. It’s too convenient for the Davises that their car was literally sold during the claims process before the stated extension deadline. It’s completely unconscionable and the lack of detail and additional coverage makes me doubt their honesty.

        If you can’t foresee the possibility that someone would lie and misrepresent the truth for their own gain, then you are pretty naive.

        1. You’re aware that news agencies have filters on what stories they do or do not produce right? They cant tell every story. Stories like this you often find in more independent media or in city journal type media, not major media.

          1. The idea that a story this outrageous appears on only one outlet and not in any other media form might have been plausible 50 years ago, but not today. Why even fixate on this point though? The story is suspicious regardless of whether it was covered or not.

  5. To quote a well know Nobel prize winner “Elections have consequences. We won.”
    You vote for democrats you get corruption and the trampling of human rights, constitutional rights, and natural rights.
    So consider your 2020 vote carefully, hold your nose, and vote against all democrats regardless of who else is running. (yes, even him)
    This will result in corruption and the trampling of human rights, constitutional rights, and natural rights at a slightly slower rate.

  6. The U.S. is a police state with no justice.

  7. and that doesn’t include towing and storage fees, which accumulate at $20 a day for the first five days, and $35 a a day after that.

    $35 a day for parking?? Where the hell is the tow lot? In front of the Drake hotel downtown?

    Fact of the matter is Chicago needs this money – after the impound lot, country commissioner, police, mayor, alderman, and the Giancana family get their cut, id bet only $5 goes to the actual city coffers. With thousands of people moving out of there every month and an impossible amount of debt, every tow counts.

  8. Is it possible every time I read something about Chicago it’s something crooked and corrupted? I mean, NYC, Boston, L.A., New Orleans and Montreal* are bad but this…..I mean Chicago takes the trophy for ‘Town run by criminals’.

    It’s incorrigible. How it functions is beyond me.

    *We’re a hub for just about every racket you can think of. From identity theft rings to car theft to whatever.

  9. The “client” with heroin in his pocket was in on the racket, right?

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    1. But do you have a car impounded in Shitcago?

  11. Institute for Justice: the real Avengers.

  12. Doesn’t anyone remember the “Lincoln Park Pirates” ?

    There is a song by that name.

    Steve Goodman.

  13. Where else is Chicago going to get the pension money?

  14. “Chicago’s impound racket is both easy to be ensnared in and hard to escape.”

    It’s very easy to avoid, however: don’t live in Chicago.

    1. Funny that. Their custody court system is even more horrible. Chicago forces some people to live there, despite how abysmal it is.

  15. Is Chicago a third-world city?

    1. The Left is working hard at it.

  16. I’d think Davis has a lawsuit against that body shop, too. No?

    1. Yes, but since she’s the car owner, the city expects her to pay.

      1. She will have to file a small claims against the shop, for not certifying all their drivers are carrying a valid DL. She can get up to triple her fees + car cost.

  17. Corruption is to Chicago as brine is to sea water.

  18. Impound laws are like asset seizure laws. Invitations to corruption and bullying by the authorities.

  19. Coming to California. The State here will do anything to pay bloated CALPERS and CALSTRS Pensions. The good citizens of Illinois and California are voting with their feet and moving to no-tax Red States.

    1. Yes, but then they vote to turn those states into the same fascist third world shitholes they left.

  20. After suffering through three years of Chicago custody court, I have figured out the problem, and some solutions. The judges come from a culture which actively perverts justice. They are immune to consequences for their actions. They act with impunity.
    1) Make judges accountable;
    2) Prohibit attorneys from becoming judges.

  21. Good golly gosh, wanna bet that Mr. Byrd will be voting Democrat in the next municipal election.

  22. Because, FYTW.

  23. It seems simple to me as to why. Because most victims of this scam are black, with little to no financial resources to fight back. Big city ‘laws’ sole purpose is to feed City Hall with money from poor people. So when’s that Revolution gonna start? Need to burn down the system and get a new and fair one. Flush out every rat!

  24. The Lincoln Park Pirates got us back in 1979! They were renegades then, now they are official city business!

    Chicago’s excellent folkie Steve Goodman (RIP) on the Lincoln Park Pirates:

  25. Chicago is doing this because the city is hopelessly in debt and it needs every cent of revenue it can shake out of its residents . If scams like this are stopped, residents can expect an increase in taxes.

  26. […] Chicago Impounds Innocent People’s Cars And Soaks Them In Fines. Now It’s Getting Sued – WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago, Reason […]

  27. […] Chicago frequently impounds cars whose owners are not guilty of any crimes, then charges the owners … – See remark above about disarmed citizens and no power. One highlight: some people took their SUV to a shop to get worked on. A shop employee took it for a test drive, but his license was expired. The police nabbed him and impounded the car. After getting the runaround from the city, the owners finally got an agreement in place to get their car back… and then, just before they could get the (lapsed, because the car was parked in an impound lot) registration expired, the city sold the car. […]

  28. So no citizen initiative measures are allowed in Chicago?

  29. I bet even money all defendants in this case are still registered and voting Democrats.

  30. The Cook County Libertarian party ought to contact each and every one of those extortion victims and explain the law-changing power of spoiler votes. Either you vote LP for freedom and against coercion, or you vote for a party of aggressive coercion, hence, against freedom. Framing the alternative that way exploits the either-or dichotomy both halves of the entrenched kleptocracy routinely use as a means of unmentioning the LP. Losing is when you throw your vote away on looters instead of making it a demand for your rights.

  31. Policing for profits is the American way. The Blue Mafia is a much bigger threat to individual freedom than the federal government ever could be.

  32. […] Chicago Impounds Innocent People’s Cars and Soaks Them in Fines. Now It’s Getting Sued: … – C.J. Ciaramella, Reason Magazine […]

  33. […] Burying government in lawsuits is the only way to slow its depredations: […]

  34. […] READ: Chicago Impounds Innocent People’s Cars and Soaks Them in Fines. Now It’s Getting … […]

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