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After five-year legal nightmare, woman gets back impounded car

Symone Smith finally got back her 2010 Nissan Sentra, which was impounded and held for the past five years, outside the city impound lot. | Michelle Kanaar | Sun-Times

After five years of separation, without any contact, Symone Smith wasn’t sure what to expect from Friday’s planned reunion.

So in a dusty, gravel parking lot on the city’s Far South Side, Smith was delighted that there was still a spark — albeit with the help of a set of jumper cables.

After one final indignity Friday — paying off $3,250 in city fines — Smith finally was reunited with her 2010 Nissan Sentra, which had been gathering dust in the city’s vast impound lot at 103rd and Doty since 2012.

“I still think this process totally sucks, but I’m happy that it’s in a decent condition,” said Smith, a nurse who lives in Hazel Crest. “We thought that it would definitely have been a lot worse.”

Smith, her mother and the tow truck driver who hooked up the jumper cables were all astonished when the car’s engine rattled to life.

Symone Smith with her newly reclaimed 2010 Nissan Sentra, which had been impounded for the last five years. | Michelle Kanaar / Sun-Times
Symone Smith with her newly reclaimed 2010 Nissan Sentra, which had been impounded for the last five years. | Michelle Kanaar / Sun-Times

A Cook County judge signed the paperwork last month to allow Smith, 26, to finally get back her car. Smith was a nursing student in April 2012 — just two months after she got the car, her first — when she let a friend take it to go to a store.

Brian Hewlett was supposed to come right back. But the police pulled him over and found a bag of suspected crack cocaine, according to a vehicle-seizure report.

The car was towed to the impound lot. Smith expected to have to pay a small fine to retrieve it. But she learned the state’s attorney’s office had put a hold on it. The prosecutor’s office typically goes after assets that can be linked to the drug trade.

Hewlett was charged with possession of cocaine. Smith has never been charged in connection with that incident and says she didn’t know anything about Hewlett’s alleged drug possession when she let him use her car.

Complicating things, Hewlett was arrested a year later and charged with murder, accused of gunning down a 17-year-old boy outside a high school basketball game at Chicago State University. Hewlett is awaiting trial in both cases.

Cook County prosecutors and Smith’s lawyer, Zachary Limbaugh, disagree about why it took so long for Smith’s case to be wrapped up. Limbaugh has said the case changed substantially in March when Smith was finally able to pay off her car loan on the $19,000 vehicle. With the lender no longer a party to the case, Smith and the state’s attorney’s office were able to reach agreement, Limbaugh said.

On Friday, before she could take possession of her car, Smith had to pay the city fines — for owning a car that had drugs inside and that had been driven by someone driving on a suspended license, Limbaugh said.

Symone Smith and her mother Antoinette Smith at the Daley Center shortly after a judge signed paperwork in March letter her get her car back. | Stefano Esposito / Sun-Times
Symone Smith and her mother Antoinette Smith at the Daley Center shortly after a judge signed paperwork in March letter her get her car back. | Stefano Esposito / Sun-Times

Having to cough up her “security blanket” has left Smith bitter at a system, she said, that seems to be fixated on one thing: making money.

“The way that the law is set up is bull,” she said. “The battle I had to have with my lien holder is just as unfortunate. Everything seems to be based upon money — what you can get from basically making someone’s life terrible for a good amount of time.”

In total — between fines, car payments and lawyer fees — Smith and her mother figure they’ve paid about $35,000 for a $19,000 car.

The inside of Symone Smith’s 2010 Nissan Sentra. | Michelle Kanaar / Sun-Times
The inside of Symone Smith’s 2010 Nissan Sentra. | Michelle Kanaar / Sun-Times

But at least Smith now has that car back, and it looked remarkably unscathed Friday. A thick layer of dust covered almost every surface inside, including a soggy-looking copy of “Davis’s Drug Guide for Nurses” — a reminder of Smith’s nursing school days. Unfamiliar scratches marked both bumpers, and the wheel covers were cracked, Smith said, as she prepared to have it towed to her dealership in South Holland to get it checked out.

“It’s over,” she said, as the tow truck pulled away.