NORMAL — Criminal charges often carry stiff financial penalties. If an arrest occurs when the accused is behind the wheel, the fees to reclaim a vehicle add hundreds of dollars to the financial consequences.
A state law that allows police agencies to collect up to $500 from a driver in return for release of a vehicle driven during an alleged criminal or traffic offense is an important revenue source for the cities that levy the fees.
In Normal, about $877,000 was collected in impound fees between 2014 and 2016.
In Bloomington, impound fees of $400-per-vehicle have added almost $950,000 to city coffers in the past three years. An additional $235,000 was collected by the city from the sale of unclaimed autos.
Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner said the fees help cover the town's cost of enforcing the law, particularly in alcohol-related cases.
"We try to recoup or at least offset the cost of officers' time. DUI is a preventable crime that takes officers away from other things they could be doing," said Bleichner.
Under Normal's policy, a tow will not be ordered by police if another driver is available to drive the vehicle. The exception to that rule is drunken driving arrests that require a 12-hour hold before the car can be moved.
Impound revenue goes into Normal's general fund that supports police operations and other municipal departments.
Individuals who believe a tow was unjustified or have successfully challenged charges in court can take their case to an administrative hearing. Bleichner said a handful of those cases result in refunds to owners each month.
vehicle owners in Normal and Bloomington pay their impound fees to
local police, they take a receipt to Joe's Towing where they pay a
separate towing fee to reclaim their vehicle.
Under its local contracts with both local governments, Joe's charges $70 plus mileage in Bloomington and $60 plus mileage in Normal for towing impounded vehicles.
Daily storage fees of $40 are charged by Joe's after 24 hours under the city's agreement and $30 a day for Normal tows.
Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner also sees the towing fees supplementing the city's police budget.
"I think it's reasonable that the people who commit the offense should pay the cost," said Renner.
Bloomington officers will order a vehicle to be towed regardless of the availability of another driver, said Angela Fyns-Jimenez, an attorney with Sorling Northrup, the Springfield law firm contracted to represent the city on legal matters.
The most common arguments offered at city administrative hearings come from vehicle owners who allowed another person to drive their vehicle and find themselves responsible for the $400 fee, said Fyns-Jimenez.
Not all police agencies impose a fee to impound vehicles.
McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage said added fees can be a burden for drivers who cannot afford to reclaim their vehicles.
Citing a scenario where a driver's car may be impounded for driving without insurance, Sandage said "our stance on it is if the person has no money, their vehicle sits and acquires storage fees. It just digs them in deeper and deeper."
The consequences for violating criminal and traffic laws should be imposed by a judge in the courtroom and not by police on the street, argues Bloomington defense lawyer Robert Carter, whose clients often complain about the time and money spent to recover their vehicles.
"The impound fees are a way for city, towns and villages to feed their budgets with money they did not earn. It's a windfall to cities at the expense of citizens," said Carter.