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Lawsuit accusing city of ‘towing without telling’ granted class-action status

Lisandra Velez said the city metaphorically crushed her mother’s legs when they towed her wheelchair accessible van in 2018.

Attorney Jacie Zolna looks on as Lisandra Velez, daughter of Andrea Santiago, discusses how her mother’s car was towed from outside her Northwest Side home, Wednesday morning, Nov. 18, 2020.
Lisandra Velez, daughter of Andrea Santiago, talks about how her mother’s van was towed from outside her Northwest Side home.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

A Northwest Side woman’s lawsuit that accuses Chicago of “towing without telling” could grow to cover thousands of Chicago motorists whose vehicles were impounded, crushed and later sold for scrap.

At the forefront of the allegations is 69-year-old Andrea Santiago, whose 1998 GMC Savana 1500 van was towed and impounded in June 2018. Her lawsuit was recently granted class-action status, attorney Jacie Zolna said Wednesday.

Under Chicago’s abandoned vehicle policy, the city has the discretion of towing vehicles that have not been moved or used for more than seven days and seem deserted. Cars, vans or SUVs are then impounded and if not redeemed by the owner can be sold for scrap.

Kathleen Fieweger, a spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department, denied any wrongdoing.

“The city provides ample notice concerning the towing of these vehicles,” Fieweger said. “Specifically, a notice sticker is placed on the vehicle before it is towed, and the city sends two notice letters in the mail after it is towed.”

Santiago, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, relied on her van and its $10,000 wheelchair lift to get to and from medical appointments. Her daughter, Lisandra Velez, was the primary driver because Santiago can’t drive.

Since the van was mostly used for Santiago’s appointments, it often sat parked in front of her house for weeks. Velez said she had handicap stickers plastered all over the van. At one point, she wrote “This van is not abandoned” on the side of the vehicle.

“They took it, then they crushed it. There was no notice or nothing at all,” Velez said Wednesday. “Basically, they crushed her legs, that’s what [the city] did, they crushed her legs and didn’t give her a chance to fight for it.”

Andrea Santiago smiles from her front doorway after a press conference about how her car was towed from outside her Northwest Side home, Wednesday morning, Nov. 18, 2020. Santiago is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago challenging the constitutionality of its practice of “towing without telling.”
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Velez said an owner must to be present to claim an impounded vehicle, but Santiago’s only mode of transportation was sitting in the impound lot. The van was later crushed and sold for scrap without notifying Santiago.

Zolna said the lawsuit focuses on the city’s failure to notify Santiago, which sets it apart from other lawsuits filed over the city’s towing practices.

“Before the government can take your property, they have to give you notice and an opportunity to be heard — that is just the basic tenet of law,” Zolna said. “Here they didn’t do that; they literally took Ms. Santiago’s car without any notice.”

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

Andrea Santiago’s 1998 GMC Savana 1500 van parked in front of her home before the city towed, impounded and sold it for scraps.
Andrea Santiago’s 1998 GMC Savana 1500 van parked in front of her home before the city towed, impounded and sold it for scraps.
Provided.