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."