CITY REINS IN ITS VE­HI­CLE IM­POUND­MENT PRO­GRAM

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY FRAN SPIELMAN, CITY HALL REPORTER fspiel­man@sun­times.com | @fspiel­man

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.

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