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Committee OKs $5 million to settle class-action lawsuit by motorists denied due process after vehicles seized in drug cases

The lawsuit was filed by two people whose vehicle was seized after a passenger was arrested for marijuana possession. Though the case was dismissed, CPD contacted the lienholder, urging it to repossess the vehicle.

The current Chicago city flag hangs outside City Hall.
A Chicago City Council committee on Monday OK’d a settlement that applies to hundreds of motorists whose vehicles were impounded as part of drug cases.
Sun-Times file

Chicago taxpayers will spend nearly $5 million to compensate motorists denied due process after their vehicles were seized in connection with suspected drug-related offenses.

The City Council’s Finance Committee signed off on the $4.95 million settlement to resolve a class-action lawsuit filed in March 2015.

Plaintiffs Brandon Fuller and Savannah Washington filed the lawsuit because their vehicle had been seized for potential forfeiture after a passenger in the car was arrested for marijuana possession.

One month later, a judge found there was no probable cause for the search. The drug case was dismissed. But it still was too late for Fuller and Washington.

They claim the Chicago Police Department’s Asset Forfeiture Unit contacted the lienholder of the vehicle “almost immediately after” their car was impounded and “encouraged the lienholder” to repossess the vehicle. They claim to have made several attempts to recover their vehicle, to no avail. It was released to the lienholder.

State law requires CPD to determine if forfeiture is warranted, then either send the vehicle to the state’s attorney’s office for a probable cause hearing and subsequent forfeiture hearing or release the vehicle to the owner or the lienholder.

First Deputy Corporation Counsel Renai Rodney said an internal police investigation confirmed the plaintiffs’ complaints about the violation of due process.

In July 2015, CPD revised its vehicle release procedures to “make explicit that lienholders were not provided with any preferential treatment in the recovery of vehicles impounded for alleged drug-related offenses.”

“Thereafter, all vehicles seized by CPD were either submitted to the state’s attorney office for a probable cause determination or released to the owner,” Rodney told aldermen.

Though the plaintiffs originally claimed the flawed practice impacted 22,000 vehicles, Rodney said the settlement advanced Monday impacts “only 356 vehicles” impounded by the city between March 28, 2013 and Aug. 1, 2015.

Owners of each of those vehicles will be mailed a claim form, with a Nov. 18 deadline to return it.

Under questioning by Ald. Edward Burke (14th), Rodney acknowledged one-third of the $4.95 million settlement — $1.65 million — will go to plaintiffs’ attorneys. The three named plaintiffs will each receive a $5,000 “incentive payment.” There’s also a “claims administration fee” of $15,158.

That leaves $3.27 million in the “settlement pot” to be distributed among the 356 vehicle owners.

“They will be entitled to the Kelley Blue Book value of their vehicle at the time that it was seized by CPD. … The average value of the vehicles for which we have a fair purchase price is approximately $9,891.66,” Rodney said.

“The city took the position initially that the value of the vehicle should be less any amount owed to the lienholder. The plaintiff argued that the appropriate measure was the fair-market value of the vehicle when seized by CPD. The court sided with the plaintiff. So, we had to settle on accepting the fair market value of the vehicle.”

It’s not the first time the city was forced to cough up big bucks to motorists denied due process.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration was forced 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 — Myron M. Cherry & Associates LLP — also 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.

• Also on Monday, the Finance Committee debated for hours, then reluctantly signed off on a $500,000 settlement stemming from the Chicago Police Department’s failure to honor a Freedom of Information request.

Charles Green filed the lawsuit in November 2015 after CPD failed to respond to his request for 50 years’ worth of closed complaints register files for present and former Chicago Police officers.