A new lawsuit accuses the city government of Wilmington, Delaware, of running an unconstitutional towing and impound program that strips owners of their vehicles over petty ticket debts.
The Institute for Justice (IJ), a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, filed the lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of two Wilmington residents who say their vehicles were towed over improperly issued tickets and then scrapped after they couldn't afford to pay off the accumulating fines and storage fees within 30 days.
The suit alleges that Wilmington allows two private towing companies it contracts with to wrongfully take and sell residents' cars without providing proper pre- or post-seizure hearings, violating owners' Fourth Amendment and due process rights. And because the value of the cars often far exceeds the owners' debts, IJ argues the practice also violates the Eighth Amendment's protections against excessive fees and fines.
"When they took my vehicle, it hindered me from being able to get around. I have a bad back. I can't do a lot of walking," Ameera Shaheed, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said in a press release. "I needed that vehicle. It was my pride and joy."
According to the suit, Shaheed's car was ticketed six times while it was parked in a legal space outside of her home. While Shaheed was appealing the tickets, her car was towed and impounded. Because Shaheed, a grandmother of three who lives on a fixed income, could not afford to pay the $320 that the towing company was demanding for the release of her car, it remained impounded for more than 30 days, after which it was sold for scrap.
Although Shaheed's car was worth more than $4,000, none of the proceeds from the sale were credited toward Shaheed's debt. In fact, IJ says her debts have risen to $580.
According to the lawsuit, Wilmington does not pay the two towing companies that it contracts with for impound services and "scofflaw enforcement." Rather, the companies keep the proceeds of any sales of any vehicles that are forfeited. The two towing companies sold, scrapped, kept, or otherwise disposed of at least 987 out of the 2,551 cars it towed in 2020, IJ says.
Civil liberties groups argue that abusive impound programs strip petty offenders and low-income residents of their transportation, often making it even harder for them to hold down a job and pay off their debts.
"The Constitution requires that any penalty imposed by the government be proportional to the crime. The loss of one's car for ticket debt is unconstitutional," IJ attorney Will Aronin said in a press release. "People depend on their cars to work, to visit family, and for all parts of their lives. Nobody should lose their car just because they can't afford to pay a parking ticket."
Reason reported in 2018 on Chicago's uniquely punitive impound program, which soaked owners in thousands of dollars in fines and fees for a litany of low-level offenses and held their cars indefinitely until the fines were paid or they relinquished their cars. There were few to no accommodations for low-income defendants. Even in cases where owners beat criminal charges or were innocent, they were still forced to go through the city's quasi-judicial administrative hearings court, where low standards of evidence and few procedural protections almost always ensured that defendants ended up in debt and bereft of their cars.
IJ also filed a civil rights lawsuit against Chicago in 2019, alleging that the city's impound scheme violates the Illinois and U.S. Constitution's protections against excessive fines and unreasonable seizures, as well as due process protections.
That lawsuit is ongoing, but Chicago passed some reforms to its impound program in 2020, following more investigative reporting by WBEZ and ProPublica Illinois. WBEZ reported that Chicago seized 250,000 cars since 2010, imposing $600 million in debt on owners. The news outlet also discovered that motorists' debts were sometimes inflated due to a combination of computer and data-entry errors.
Some federal courts have struck down similar impound schemes on constitutional grounds. For example, in 2017 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Los Angeles' automatic 30-day impound law amounted to an unconstitutional seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
However, earlier this month The Orange County Register reported that, despite the 9th Circuit's ruling, law enforcement agencies across California continue to use 30-day impounds for unlicensed drivers.
A spokesperson for the city of Wilmington said the city is reviewing the lawsuit but declined to comment further.