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Vehicle impoundment program reined in by Chicago City Council

Without a word of debate, the City Council agreed Wednesday to rein in a vehicle impoundment program that became Chicago’s catch-all solution to crimes of all kinds, but also trapped motorists in a cycle of debt.

“No city should be able to hoard and profit from the personal property of its residents just because they can’t afford to pay. And no city should be taking away its residents’ ability to get back and forth to work or to school,” a triumphant Mayor Lori Lightfoot told reporters after the Council meeting.

Last fall, Lightfoot convinced aldermen to cut Chicago scofflaws some slack by reducing fines, expanding payment plans and stopping drivers’ license suspensions for non-moving violations. The mayor also ordered a moratorium on water shut-offs, calling water a “basic human right.”

Wednesday’s vote was yet another installment on the mayor’s plan to bring equity to an overly-punitive ticketing and towing policy that has unfairly targeted minority motorists and forced thousands of them into bankruptcy.

Under the ordinance:

• Automatic impoundment ends for motorists driving on suspended licenses if the suspension was triggered by overdue parking tickets.

• Fines doubled nine years ago return to 2011 levels and storage fees are capped at $1,000.

Lightfoot said mounting fees have “resulted over time in so many people just abandoning their cars because they couldn’t afford to pay the accumulated fees and debt.”

• The city won’t charge storage fees when motorists can’t redeem their vehicles.

• The laundry list of offenses making motorists eligible for vehicle impoundment gets shorter; gone are many “non-driving and non-public safety-related offenses,” including possession of fireworks, playing loud music, littering and driving on a license suspended as a result of city debt.

• The city will establish an “innocent owner” defense, which, the mayor said, “will allow folks to get their cars when they’ve been used without their knowledge or prove that their cars shouldn’t have been impounded in the first place.”

• Automatic impoundment ends for motorists driving on suspended licenses if the suspension was triggered by overdue parking tickets.

Over the years, vehicle impoundment became the city’s answer to fighting crimes ranging from curfew violations and loud radio playing to soliciting for prostitution and graffiti.

Impounded vehicles are then sold to the city’s private towing contractor for scrap, often for less than $200.

Shortly after taking office, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley turned towing over to EAR, a company whose owners have close ties to Jeremiah Joyce, one of Daley’s closest friends in politics.

The Sun-Times subsequently exposed how the city sells about 70,000 cars each year to EAR for no more than the going scrap-metal price, regardless of the vehicle’s age or condition.

Owners get nothing for the car, even though they’re still on the hook to the city for fines and towing fees. The towing company resold the cars through private auctions held at city auto pounds and kept the proceeds.

Lightfoot introduced the latest round of reforms in response to a more recent investigation by WBEZ-FM (91.5) that uncovered even more problems in the way police seize vehicles during arrests, saddling motorists with thousands of dollars in storage fees that drove them in debt.

That investigation concluded that storage fees were “inflated” because of mistakes made by people and computers and by Emanuel’s decision to lift the cap. A review by the city’s Department of Finance is currently underway.

“These reforms…will make sure that every Chicagoan has…equal opportunity to getting their cars out of the pound, stop the seizure of cars in the first place for non-moving violations and stop forcing them to choose between getting their car back, getting food on the table or getting sent into a cycle of debt,” the mayor said.

The impoundment reforms were approved at an action-packed City Council meeting where aldermen also agreed to spend nearly $5 million to compensate motorists denied due process after their vehicles were seized in connection with suspected drug-related offenses.

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

One month later, a judge found there was no probable cause for the search and the case against the passenger was dismissed.

Although the charges that triggered the impoundment were dropped, it 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 re-possess the vehicle.

They claim to have made several attempts to recover their vehicle, to no avail. It was released to the lienholder.

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