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City accused of ‘towing without telling’

A lawsuit filed on behalf of a Chicagoan with multiple sclerosis says her van was snatched off the street and sold for scrap while it was parked legally in front of her home.

Compounding the problem is the city’s failure to provide “any notice by mail whatsoever prior to towing vehicles that it considers abandoned,” states the lawsuit that was filed in in Cook County Circuit Court by attorney Jacie Zolna on behalf of motorist Andrea Santiago.

The city of Chicago was accused Tuesday of “towing without telling.” That is, towing and impounding thousands of vehicles without sending motorists the state-required notice by mail that their cars, trucks and SUV’s may be sold for scrap if not reclaimed.

“Thousands of cars are, in effect, stolen from citizens of Chicago and sold without proper notice and due process,” says the lawsuit filed by attorney Jacie Zolna on behalf of Andrea Santiago, a Chicago motorist with multiple sclerosis whose van was snatched off the street and sold for scrap.

“While the city allegedly sends a notice of impoundment to the owner after it has already been impounded, it fails to send the required additional notice when the city intends on disposing of the vehicle….In other words, the city is disposing of citizens’ vehicles without telling them and keeping the proceeds of the sale.”

Compounding the problem is the city’s failure to provide “any notice by mail whatsoever prior to towing vehicles that it considers abandoned,” states the lawsuit that was filed in Cook County Circuit Court.

“While in some cases the city places a warning sticker on a vehicle that it considers abandoned, no such notice is mailed or otherwise actually delivered to the owner.”

Contrary to a state law tailor made to eliminate “towing abuses,” the city’s ordinance “only provides that notice be given after the vehicle has already been towed, at which point the city has already tacked on hefty towing and storage fees.”

Two months ago, the Institute for Justice filed a class-action lawsuit that seeks to stop the city from seizing vehicles used in certain crimes and compel the city to return those vehicles to motorists who can’t afford to pay the city’s sky-high impoundment fees.

That lawsuit alleged that Chicago provides constitutionally inadequate notice to motorists whose vehicles have been impounded and to those whose vehicles could be scrapped.

The suit also took issue with the city’s refusal to return a person’s car until “all other outstanding fines are paid, including red-light camera tickets, parking tickets, and speed camera tickets.”

The lawsuit filed Tuesday makes a similar argument and similarly seeks class-action status for motorists in the same boat as Santiago.

Santiago’s 1998 GMC Savana 1500 van was towed and impounded in June 2018 — and subsequently sold for scrap without prior notice — while parked outside Santiago’s home with a valid city sticker and a disability placard in the windshield, the lawsuit says.

The size of the class could not be quantified, but it could be huge.

In 2017 alone, the city impounded 93,857 vehicles, with 24,000 of those vehicles sold to United Road Towing for more than $4 million.

Santiago’s lawsuit was filed by a law firm with a track record for winning similar judgments against the city: Myron M. Cherry & Associates LLP.

That’s the firm that forced the Emanuel administration to pay $38.75 million in refunds to motorists denied due process after being slapped with tickets based on information from red-light and speed cameras.

The same firm is trying to force the city to pay similar refunds to motorists ticketed for driving while talking on cell phones; those citations were being routed to administrative hearing officers, instead of to Traffic Court, where a pending lawsuit claims they belong.

Distracted-driving tickets are no longer resolved by administrative adjudication.

Last summer, Cherry & Associates accused now-former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration of illegally assessing fines and penalties against “hundreds of thousands” of Chicago motorists by exceeding a $250 maximum established by state law.

The Illinois General Assembly established the $250 ceiling for both fines and late fees in exchange for shifting vehicle violations from the courts to city hearing officers, where the burden of proof is lower.

That lawsuit accused the city of ignoring that cap for years on more than a dozen vehicle-related violations.

Among others, those violations included: parking in a fire lane, within 15 feet of a fire hydrant or in an alley; driving without a city sticker; or double-parking in the Central Business district.

The suit contended that the illegal fines and fees exceeding the $250 cap have been assessed for at least the last five years.