Fines

Chicago Impounded This Grandmother's Car For a Pot Offense She Didn't Commit. Now She Owes $6,000

Allie Nelson is the latest plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Chicago's vehicle impound racket, which seizes cars from the innocent and guilty alike.

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The city of Chicago says retired grandmother Allie Nelson owes it $6,000 in fines and fees after her car was impounded in 2017, even though the criminal case that led to her car being impounded was dismissed, and even though she wasn't driving her car, or even in the state, when she violated Chicago's city code.

Nelson was in fact across the country in Houston, recuperating from cancer treatment, when she got a call from a family member saying her car had been impounded. She had lent her car to her granddaughter while she was out of town. Police pulled over the car one night and found her granddaughter's boyfriend driving, allegedly along with some marijuana.

"I don't know what they've got going on, but they're taken people's cars left and right," Nelson says. "Now if I'm parked wrong or whatever, okay. But don't keep my car and slap fines on me that I have nothing to do with. Why me? I ain't a drug dealer. I'm retired."

She's one of tens of thousands of Chicagoans who have lost their cars and been slapped with ruinous fines under the city's vehicle impound program, which holds owners liable for whatever code violations occur in their cars, whether or not they were aware of them and regardless of whether they can pay the fines.

Nelson is also one of two named plaintiffs added this week to a class-action lawsuit challenging Chicago's impound program. The lawsuit, filed in April by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, alleges that Chicago's practice of holding impounded cars indefinitely until the owners pay up violates residents' guarantee of due process, as well as protections against excessive fines and unreasonable seizures, under both the Illinois and U.S. constitutions.

The lawsuit follows a Reason investigation last year into Chicago's impound program that found the city seizes cars for dozens of various municipal code violations, ranging from drug and gun offenses to driving on a suspended license to playing music too loud. The city then soaks vehicle owners in thousands of dollars in fines and storage fees, even when they beat criminal charges or, like Nelson, weren't even driving their car when the violation occurred. 

The city says it is enforcing quality-of-life laws and cracking down on scofflaws, but civil liberties groups and community activists say the impound program is predatory, burying the guilty and innocent alike in debt.

"Owners find themselves in a labyrinthine impound system that is plagued by serious procedural flaws," the Institute for Justice lawsuit 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."

Nelson says she lent her car to her granddaughter in October 2017 while she went to Texas for cancer treatment, so her granddaughter could get back and forth to school and work. Nelson also says gave strict instructions not to let her granddaughter's boyfriend drive it.

But when Chicago police pulled over Nelson's 2007 Chrysler 300 on an October night, allegedly for a cracked windshield, the boyfriend was driving. A police search of the car turned up marijuana. Nelson's car was towed on the spot, and she says her granddaughter was left on the sidewalk at night to find a way home.

Chicagos' quasi-judicial administrative court, which is overseen by contract attorneys rather than judges, ruled in February 2018 that Nelson was still liable for a $2,000 fine for having unlawful drugs in her vehicle, plus $3,925 more in towing and storage fees. 

"They could look at my zip code and tell I don't have that kind of money," Nelson says.

Last month, in response to media investigations and growing criticism, the Chicago City Council passed reforms to the city's punitive ticketing and debt collection policies. However, those changes did not touch the vehicle impound program.

As we reported in our investigation, impound hearings are heavily stacked against defendants. They are civil matters, not criminal, meaning defendants aren't afforded lawyers. The hearings rely on a low standard of evidence and there is no innocent owner defense, so the city only has to prove it's more likely than not that a violation occurred in the owner's car. Finally, they operate independently of the state court system, meaning even defendants who beat a criminal or asset forfeiture case in state court can still have their car held indefinitely by the city. 

Nelson was also told her car could not be released until the criminal case against her granddaughter's boyfriend concluded. In February 2019, prosecutors dropped the charges against the boyfriend, but when Nelson called to ask about her car, she was told it had already been sold off. According to the lawsuit, she never received a notice that the city intended to dispose of her car.

A WBEZ analysis of Chicago's gigantic towing operation, of which the vehicle impound program is only a part, found that in 2017 the city towed nearly 94,000 cars. About one in four of those cars were sold to United Road Towing for scrap prices, for a total of $4 million. WBEZ estimated the actual total value of the cars to be $22 million.

However, the sale of Nelson's car did nothing to draw down her debts to Chicago. There is no statute of limitations for the fines and they can't be discharged through bankruptcy. The loss of her car created other hardships for Nelson and her granddaughter.

"She couldn't get back and forth to both work and school," Nelson says. "She eventually had to give up one of them, and she had to keep a job, so she kind of dropped out."

Nelson's claims echo those in other media investigations and lawsuits. The city was hit with a second class-action lawsuit in June alleging that the city fails to notify vehicle owners of the impoundment and impending disposal of their cars.

According to the lawsuit, filed in Illinois state court, Chicago has a policy of "towing without telling," ignoring a state law passed in 2005 requiring the city to notify vehicle owners that their cars may be disposed of if not claimed. "As a result, thousands of cars are in effect stolen from citizens of Chicago and sold without proper notice and due process," the lawsuit argues.

The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit is Andrea Santiago, a Chicago woman with multiple sclerosis whose van, which included a $10,000 wheelchair lift, was improperly towed and destroyed last year.

I also profiled the case of Spencer Byrd, a Chicago area carpenter and part-time auto mechanic. Byrd says he was giving a customer a lift when he was pulled over by Chicago police and searched. He was clean, but his passenger had heroin in his pocket.

Byrd's Cadillac was impounded, and even though he eventually was declared innocent in a state asset forfeiture case against his car, Chicago has refused to release his vehicle to him, claiming he still owes thousands of dollars in fines for a municipal code violation. He is also now a plaintiff in the Institute for Justice's lawsuit.

"If you do wrong, fine, but I didn't do nothing wrong," Byrd told 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."

NEXT: Tennessee Court Says Music City Can Keep Cracking Down on Home Recording Studios

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  1. Don’t wanna be treated like a thug, shouldn’t be hanging out in thug cities like Chicago.

    “If you do wrong, fine, but I didn’t do nothing wrong,” Byrd told 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.”

    LOL – what time last night did you arrive in Chicago? Or are you just senile and forgot Chicago is run by a pack of crooks?

    1. Well it is MAGA country.

      1. Gaear: If that was satire, it was quite poorly done. If you actually believe it, you are insane.

  2. fun suit to file. fuck you, Chicago.

  3. Batting down laws like these is just whack-a-mole. The problem is police powers and a coercive monopolistic government.

  4. Seems like the “gigantic towing operation” is an outlaw organization, if they are willfully ignoring established law. Isn’t dealing with outlaws the business of any interested party, a la piracy?

    1. That is exactly what it is.

  5. “Chicago Impounded This Grandmother’s Car For a Pot Offense She Didn’t Commit. Now She Owes $6,000.”

    Sounds fair to me.
    So, what’s the problem?

    Mayor Richard J. Daley.
    Mayor, Chicago, Long Deceased.

    1. But still voting, probably.

  6. Hey, if we weren’t aggressively impounding cars, what would we do? Investigate the endless stream of shootings in the city?

    /Chicago Cop

  7. The city says it is enforcing quality-of-life laws

    , specifically those that enable the city’s phony-baloney jobs.

  8. police powers and a coercive monopolistic government can be the real thing to worry about
    درمان افسردگی بدون دارو

  9. So how about we impound all cars owned by the city, specifically including cop cars, as they are all used in an ongoing criminal enterprise.

  10. I’m pretty sure every city does this. Ever watch Parking Wars? Now holding it until the case was settled while piling on fees is shady as fuck.

  11. Someone needs to take a killdozer to the city of Chicago.

  12. I grew up in Chicago and moved away in 1979. The city was doing this shit then. It is a racket, and lucrative. Don’t like it, move Bitch; that is their attitude.

  13. Aside from the obvious, I’m really tired of people responding to events like this with “If I was doing something wrong, then fine”.

    Ok, that’s part of the problem. It isn’t fine, even if you were doing something wrong. The state has no right to just steal my $65k pickup truck simply because I happened to have it with me when I was caught “doing something wrong”. This asset forfeiture thing is completely out of control.

    When we started down this road, it was because drug dealers could amass huge fortunes and avoid prosecution. So they said they could stop drug trafficking by taking their cash and expensive cars that the drug money bought. At the time, civil libertarians warned that this would be abused. That it wouldn’t just be drug kingpins who were targeted. And they were laughed out of town for suggesting such a thing.

    The only good thing about this asset forfeiture experiment is that it has completely removed the mask from the monster. It should be readily apparent to any observer that government is just the transformation and civilization of the Mafia, the warlord, the street thug. We like to pretend that it has some inherent legitimacy, but it just doesn’t. It is simply an acknowledgement that some entity is going to fill that niche, and we create a version that we can live with and call that “government”. But, just as the founding fathers of the USA warned, eternal vigilance is required to keep the beast tamed. We’ve not been vigilant.

  14. “…The lawsuit, filed in April by the Institute for Justice,..”

    IJ ROCKS!

  15. I read stories in reason that are just too bizarre – and frightening because it reminds us that perhaps we are living in a Police State and there is nothing anyone can really do about it. Sure, you can sue and this and that – so the city may lose a suit here/there – but the fact that this sort of thing happens in the 21st century in these US of A is frankly frightening.

  16. “Chicago Impounded This Grandmother’s Car For a Pot Offense She Didn’t Commit. Now She Owes $6,000”

    Seems to me granny doesn’t owe shit. Her granddaughter and dirtbag boyfriend, though . . .

  17. In such cases the money should be deducted from the retirement fund of the highest involved official.

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