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City accused of violating U.S. Constitution by towing without compensation

A lawsuit seeks class-action status and just compensation on behalf of thousands of parking ticket scofflaws whose vehicles were seized and sold by United Road Towing, the city’s towing contractor.

Stock photo of a tow truck
The latest in a series of lawsuits challenging the city’s towing and ticketing practices was filed in federal court on behalf of two scofflaws whose vehicles were seized and sold.
Adobe Stock Photo

The city of Chicago was accused Wednesday of selling towed vehicles belonging to thousands of parking ticket scofflaws without offering the owners just compensation, as the U.S. Constitution demands.

The latest in a series of lawsuits challenging the city’s towing and ticketing practices was filed in federal court on behalf of two scofflaws whose vehicles were seized and sold.

But attorney Jacie Zolna is seeking class-action status and just compensation on behalf of thousands of scofflaws who were similarly victimized by the city’s failure to abide by the U.S. Constitution, which says government cannot “take property without just compensation.”

In 2017 alone, 19,665 vehicles were towed and sold by the city.

“It would be different if the city took a car, sold it at a fair and reasonable price and then used that money to reduce the ticket debt and gave the remainder to the person. But they don’t. Even if it’s $500 or $600 in ticket debt, they keep the entire car forever,” Zolna said.

“What the city does in most of these cases is they turn it around and sell it for peanuts to the tow contractor [United Road Towing]. So they’re the ones who are getting the windfall in all of this.”

One of the named plaintiffs was Joseph Walawski. He’s a delivery driver who had his 2016 Nissan Sentra in mint condition snatched off the streets and sold in 2018 for having three unpaid parking tickets he couldn’t afford to pay.

“He had to make the decision back then. ‘Do I pay the bank for the loan amount that I owe or do I pay my parking tickets?’ He chose to pay the bank. He didn’t have enough money to do both,” Zolna said.

“By the time they added towing and storage fees, it was in the neighborhood of $1,000. He can’t come up with that kind of money. He was a pizza delivery driver. So they kept his car. And now he has no car. And he still has the loan to pay for $17,000 for a car he doesn’t even own anymore.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to raise the boot threshold, stop booting for non-moving violations and eliminate a hefty chunk of red light cameras at 149 intersections if those cameras were used for revenue — not safety.

The City Council has already approved the first installment of Lightfoot’s plan to go easier on scofflaws at a first-year cost of $15 million.

On Wednesday, the mayor’s office noted that Lightfoot has “already taken action to begin reforming the City’s historically regressive ticket policies to reduce the burden of city debt and expand access to debt compliance programs” for low-income Chicagoans.

“While we have not seen and therefore cannot comment on this suit, it’s important to note that the administration is actively working to evaluate the City’s complex impound systems to find ways to enhance them and ensure that residents aren’t losing their cars simply due to inability to pay,” the mayor’s office statement said.

Zolna is the same attorney who forced former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 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.

He has also filed a string of other lawsuits targeting distracted driving tickets and accusing the city 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.

On Wednesday, Zolna urged the mayor to honor her campaign promises to scofflaws.

He noted that the first installment of Lighfoot’s plan to go easier on scofflaws reduced fines, expanded payments plans and stopped drivers’ license suspensions for non-moving violations.

“I want her to fundamentally change the towing program. Because right now, her foot is on everybody’s throat still,” he said.

“She should stop towing cars for unpaid tickets. I’m trying to stop this from happening again. That’s the main goal of this lawsuit.”