Legal nightmare: After 4 1/2 years, nurse’s car remains impounded

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Symone Smith, 26, left, and her mother, Antoinette Smith, 55, both of Hazel Crest, have been fighting for 4 1/2 years to get the daughter’s car back from a city impound lot on the Far South Side. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

Somewhere in the city’s vast, dusty automobile maze on the Far South Side sits Symone Smith’s 2010 gray Nissan Sentra.

Smith, a registered nurse who lives in Hazel Crest, isn’t sure it’s even driveable any longer after sitting in the auto pound for 4 1/2 years.

But Smith says she still has to make her monthly $276.25 car payment. Plus, there’s her car insurance.

Also, she estimates that she and her mother have paid about $7,500 in legal bills stemming from a court fight over the car.

And there’s no end in sight.

“I have all these accomplishments,” Smith, 26, says, sitting at her lawyer’s River North office. “But I’m still unable to get a car because who wants to make two car [payments] and two insurance [payments]? It’s outrageous.”

Smith can’t get her car back, she and her attorney Zachary Limbaugh say, because the Cook County state’s attorney’s office’s asset forfeiture unit wants it. Back in April 2012 — just two months after she got the car, her  first — Smith let a friend take it to go to the store. Brian Hewlett was supposed to come right back. But the police pulled Hewlett over and found a baggie of suspected crack cocaine, according to their vehicle-seizure report.

The car was towed to the city impound lot at South 103rd Street and Doty Avenue. That’s where it remains.

Smith, who wasn’t charged, thought she could pay a fine and get her car back. That’s what the police initially told her, she says. She later learned the state’s attorney’s office had put a hold on her car. The prosecutor’s office typically goes after assets that can be linked to the drug trade.

Symone Smith’s car has remained impounded because she let a friend use it. That friend now faces criminal charges. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

Symone Smith’s car has remained impounded because she let a friend use it. That friend now faces criminal charges. | Santiago Covarrubias / Sun-Times

Then, things started getting really messy. Hewlett was charged with possession of cocaine for the 2012 incident. A year later, he was arrested again, this time for murder, accused of gunning down a 17-year-old boy outside a high school basketball game at Chicago State University.

Smith hired Limbaugh to help get her car back. But he says he can’t get Smith a hearing until Hewlett’s criminal matters are resolved. And in the Cook County court system, where murder cases can take years to be resolved, Hewlett hasn’t gotten a trial date yet for either the drug case or the murder case.

“I feel bad,” Limbaugh says. “There’s nothing I can do. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Tandra Simonton, a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office, says it isn’t true that Smith has to wait for the criminal cases to be wrapped up. In June 2013, the office was prepared to have a hearing on the matter, Simonton says, but “we never heard back from [Smith] or her attorney. So we had to move forward with the proceedings.”

Limbaugh says he doesn’t recall such an offer but that it would have required agreement by all three parties, including Wells Fargo, the bank that gave her the loan to buy the car.

Smith and her mother go to the Daley Center every few months, only to be told the case has again been delayed. Each time, Smith is billed for the lawyer who appears on behalf of Wells Fargo. There’s a clause in her loan agreement that says she must pay, according to a Wells Fargo lawyer.

“I feel sorry for the woman if, in fact, what she’s saying is true,” says Kenneth Drost, the bank lawyer. “It’s a sympathetic situation.”

Drost, who says he’s been handling forfeiture cases for 20 years, says he’s never seen one “drag on this long.”

Four years after she bought the car, Smith says, she has nearly paid off the loan on the $19,000 vehicle.

Why didn’t she just walk away from the car long ago? It’s not that easy. Doing that would wreck her credit, her lawyer says. And until a court decides who gets the car, Wells Fargo would still demand payment on the loan.

Smith’s mother, Antoinette Smith, is paying most of the legal bills. She doesn’t blame her daughter for the mess.

“It was a huge learning experience,” says Antoinette Smith, 55. “You are responsible for whoever drives your automobile.”

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