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EDITORIAL: A fix for Chicago’s car impoundment system is long overdue

Hundreds of towed vehicles are parked at an auto pound owned by the city of Chicago. | Sun-Times file photo

By any standard of fairness, the Davises didn’t deserve to have their car sold out from under them by the City of Chicago.

But when Veronica and Jerome Davis took their car to a body shop for repairs, a mechanic with a revoked license drove it and got stopped by police. The cops seized and impounded the car, then sold it when the Davises couldn’t pay $1,170 in impoundment and storage fees.

“It’s been a nightmare,” Veronica Davis, not surprisingly, told WBEZ.

No wonder the Davises are among the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday that alleges the city’s “impound racket” ensnares thousands of people every year, forcing them to navigate a bureaucratic maze and pay exorbitant fees to get their cars back. Many end up losing their car altogether.

The numbers, from a WBEZ investigation cited in the lawsuit, tell the story:

  • In 2017, Chicago police towed and impounded more than 22,000 vehicles. (That’s about 60 cars every day.) Cars often were seized because the driver had a suspended license, usually from old, unpaid parking tickets. But cars also can be seized for infractions like littering or playing music too loud.
  • The city sold 8,295 of those 22,000 cars. That’s over a third of seized vehicles, a substantial percentage that suggests the process for an owner to settle the matter and get their car back is broken.
  • Impounding fees and fines topped $28 million in 2017. That’s a powerful financial incentive to keep the status quo.
  • Between 2001 and 2017, over 200,000 cars were seized. Yet more than half of those owners didn’t request a hearing to get their car back — a request that must be made in person. Another sign that the bureaucracy involved is too onerous for folks to navigate.

Whatever happens with the lawsuit as it makes its way through the courts, these red flags signal that a top-to-bottom review of the impoundment system is long overdue. No one should lose their car because someone else drove it and broke the law. No one should lose their car because of unpaid parking tickets, either, though ticket scofflaws can’t be let completely off the hook.

It’s too late for the Davises to get their car back. It’s not too late for the city to fix a broken system.

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