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Chicago’s ‘impound racket’ is ‘unconstitutional,’ lawsuit says

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

Spencer Byrd’s 1996 Cadillac DeVille meant a lot to the 51-year-old carpenter and part-time mechanic.

Byrd, who lives in Harvey, kept most of his tools in the trunk and would travel to help people with car troubles to earn extra cash.

In June 2016, Byrd came to Chicago to help a client whose car had broken down. After failing to get the car up and running, Byrd agreed to drop his client off at home. On his way there, Chicago police officers pulled Byrd over for having a broken turn signal. Police searched both men and found that Byrd’s client had heroin in his pocket.

Byrd was released without being charged — but police kept his car. Nearly three years and several court hearings later, Byrd’s still fighting to get it back. He owes the city more than $17,000 in storage and tow fees.

“It’s been a rough road these past three years,” said Byrd, who, with others, filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court Monday that seeks to upend Chicago’s controversial impound system.

Spencer Byrd’s Cadillac DeVille was impounded by the city of Chicago even though he wasn’t charged with a crime. He’s now one of the leading plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit seeking to upend the city’s impound system. | Carlos Ballesteros, Sun-Times
Spencer Byrd’s Cadillac DeVille was impounded by the city of Chicago even though he wasn’t charged with a crime. He’s now one of the leading plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit seeking to upend the city’s impound system. | Carlos Ballesteros, Sun-Times

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The suit — which was also filed by two other car owners and the Institute for Justice, a national civil liberties law firm — seeks to end the city’s “impound racket,” return all impounded cars to their owners, and have the city reimburse owners whose cars were scrapped or sold while impounded.

“Chicago imposes harsh penalties on owners of impounded vehicles, even if they did not know that someone used their car to break the law. Moreover, Chicago holds all impounded cars as ransom until an owner pays all fines and fees,” said Diana Simpson, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “This unjust process violates both the Illinois Constitution and the United States Constitution.”

Diana Simpson, attorney with the Institute for Justice, a national civil liberties law firm. | Carlos Ballesteros, Sun-Times
Diana Simpson, attorney with the Institute for Justice, a national civil liberties law firm. | Carlos Ballesteros, Sun-Times

Chicago initiated more than 22,000 impoundment cases in 2017, with associated fines and fees topping $28 million, according to an analysis by WBEZ that is cited in the suit. Most of these cases involved police stopping someone for driving with a suspended or revoked license.

After the city impounds a car, the owner must request an administrative hearing downtown within 15 days. If he or she doesn’t, they are responsible for all accruing fines and penalties.

The suit alleges Chicago provides “constitutionally inadequate notice to car owners whose vehicles have been impounded, and to car owners whose vehicles will be disposed of.” Impounding someone’s car makes it harder for them to request a hearing, the suit argues.

According to WBEZ, car owners failed to request a hearing in half of the 200,000 impoundment cases between 2001 and 2017.

The suit also takes 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.”

Simpson said the system disproportionately hinders the region’s working-class communities, many of whom rely on their vehicles for work.

“What’s happened to people whose cars have been impounded — all of them have had their civil rights violated,” she said. “The city sees its citizens and residents of neighboring towns as piggy banks, and they just keep taking money from everybody.”

A spokesperson for the city’s Law Department declined to comment on the suit on Tuesday, citing pending litigation.

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South and West sides.

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