CITY REINS IN ITS VEHICLE IMPOUNDMENT PROGRAM
Without a word of debate, the City Council agreed Wednesday to rein in a vehicle impoundment program that became Chicago’s catch-all solution to crimes of all kinds but also trapped motorists in a cycle of debt.
“No city should be able to hoard and profit from the personal property of its residents just because they can’t afford to pay. And no city should be taking away its residents’ ability to get back and forth to work or to school,” a triumphant Mayor Lori Lightfoot told reporters after the Council meeting.
Wednesday’s vote was yet another installment on the mayor’s plan to bring equity to an overly punitive ticketing and towing policy that has unfairly targeted minority motorists and forced thousands of them into bankruptcy. Under the ordinance:
◆ Automatic impoundment ends for motorists driving on suspended licenses if the suspension was triggered by overdue parking tickets.
◆ Fines doubled nine years ago return to 2011 levels; storage fees are capped at $1,000.
Lightfoot said mounting fees have “resulted over time in so many people just abandoning their cars because they couldn’t afford to pay the accumulated fees and debt.”
◆ The city won’t charge storage fees when motorists can’t redeem their vehicles.
◆ The list of offenses that trigger vehicle impoundment gets shorter; many “non-driving and non-public safety-related offenses” are eliminated, including possession of fireworks, littering and driving on a license suspended as a result of city debt.
◆ The city will establish an “innocent owner” defense, which, the mayor said, “will allow folks to get their cars when they’ve been used without their knowledge or prove that their cars shouldn’t have been impounded in the first place.”
The Sun-Times has previously reported how under Mayor Richard M. Daley, city towing was turned over to EAR, a politically connected firm. The city sells about 70,000 impounded cars each year to EAR for no more than the going scrap metal price, regardless of age or condition.
Owners get nothing, though they’re still on the hook to the city for fines and towing fees. The towing company resold the cars through private auctions and kept the proceeds.
Lightfoot introduced her reforms in response to an investigation by WBEZ-FM (91.5) that uncovered even more problems in how police seize vehicles during arrests, saddling motorists with thousands of dollars in storage fees that drove them in debt.
A review by the city’s Department of Finance is underway.
“These reforms ... will make sure that every Chicagoan has ... equal opportunity to getting their cars out of the pound, stop the seizure of cars in the first place for non-moving violations and stop forcing them to choose between getting their car back, getting food on the table or getting sent into a cycle of debt,” the mayor said.
The impoundment reforms were approved at a City Council meeting where aldermen also agreed to spend nearly $5 million to compensate motorists denied due process after their vehicles were seized in connection with suspected drug-related offenses.