The Institute for Justice is suing the city of Chicago for impounding the cars of innocent owners then demanding huge payments to get them back.
Among the non-profit legal group’s clients are Jerome Davis and Veronica Walker-Davis.
They took their car to a shop for repairs, and an employee decided to go for a joyride with it.
“When Chicago police stopped the employee and found out he was driving on a revoked license, they impounded the car. The Davises tried to show the city that they had nothing to do with his crime, but it did not matter,” IJ said.
“The city told the Davises that they still had to pay the fine and the rapidly accruing towing and storage fees. After saving up to pay, they went to pick up the car but discovered the city had already gotten rid of it,” IJ said.
Veronica said the city “took our car and then made us feel like criminals, all because of the actions of someone we don’t even know.”
“I’m happy the Institute for Justice is helping us in this case so nobody else has to go through what the city has done to us,” she said.
The institute said the city confiscates tens of thousands of cars each year.
In fact, Chicago collects some $28 million a year in fines and fees.
“It is nearly impossible for many Chicagoans to come up with enough money to get their cars back,” the institute said. “The system traps even innocent owners in its bureaucratic maze.”
IJ’s class-action lawsuit is on behalf of three car owners.
IJ said the lawsuit challenges two aspects of the city’s impound scheme: “that it subjects innocent owners to fines for crimes they did not commit and that the city holds cars as ransom until their owners pay all fines and fees.”
“Imposing any fine on someone who did nothing wrong is an excessive fine and violates due process, in violation of the Illinois and United States constitutions. And holding a car for no other reason than to force payment is an unconstitutional seizure.”
IJ attorney Diana Simpson said no one should be forced to pay for someone else’s offense.
“Chicago imposes harsh penalties on owners of impounded vehicles, even if they did not know that someone used their car to break the law,” she said. “Moreover, Chicago holds all impounded cars as ransom, sometimes for long periods of time, until an owner pays all fines and fees. This unjust process violates both the Illinois Constitution and the United States Constitution.”
The reasons the city uses vary.
One is that it was driven by a person with a suspended license.
“Regrettably, the Davises’ story is not unique. Spencer Byrd, a part-time auto mechanic, was giving a client a ride when the Chicago police stopped him for having a broken turn signal. After searching Spencer and his client, the officers found drugs in the client’s pocket. They promptly seized and impounded Spencer’s car. When Spencer tried to get it back, he also learned that a car owner’s innocence makes no difference to the city. Not only did the city tell him he had to pay the fine and fees, they will not even allow him to retrieve his tools – which he needs for his work – from his car.”
IJ said it would cost Spencer more than $17,000 to get his car back.
“A car is more than just a convenience for many Chicagoans; it is their livelihood,” said IJ attorney Kirby Thomas West. “People whose cars get trapped in the city’s impound system often also lose their ability to get to their job or work site, making it even harder for them to save money to pay their fines and fees.”