Impound or shakedown?
Towns find new revenue stream by charging hefty fees to owners when cops seize vehicles in traffic stops
By Joe Mahr, Joseph Ryan and John Keilman, Tribune reporters
July 29, 2010
Jean Wells' boyfriend was caught driving her car without a license. But after police impounded the car, she was the one who had to pay $550 to get it back.
The same thing happened to Nancy Boyland after police found her grandson driving her sedan with a small amount of marijuana. And it happened to Larissa Harrington after her son was nabbed behind the wheel of her car with an expired license.
The women committed no crimes, and in past years probably would have been able to retrieve their cars without penalty. But under an increasingly widespread policy, they paid for the alleged sins of others.
Welcome to a new era in Chicagoland policing, where municipalities are turning traffic stops into big money.
A Tribune investigation has found that more than 100 area communities have created laws to seize vehicles as punishment for a growing list of offenses, from drunken driving to loud radios to littering. Car owners must then pay "administrative" fees to get their vehicles back, even if the owners had nothing to do with the crime.
If the owners don't pay — and can't convince municipal officials that the tow was unfair — their vehicles are taken away for good.
The concept isn't new: Chicago and some suburbs started doing it in the 1990s for a few crimes. But the laws are now spreading quickly.
Citing cash woes and frustration over repeat offenders, at least 24 communities launched new seizure programs in the last year. Area impounds now top 53,000 vehicles a year, netting $24 million in fees.
Local leaders say the fines, often $500 or more, pay for police officers' time. But the Tribune found that the fees are usually much higher than what it actually costs to make an arrest and coordinate the tow.
Defense lawyers and other critics say impounds have become a shakedown of mostly low-income drivers, a system that punishes people before they're found guilty — if they're even charged with a crime.
"I would call it an alarming trend," said attorney Robert Loeb, past chairman of the state bar association's criminal justice section. "They're doing it for the revenue. That's what's motivating it."
The pitch for impounds
Kim Brown — a pregnant mother of five — was on a West Side sidewalk last fall when she was crushed by the wreckage of a nearby crash.
The driver who caused the crash, James Cox, 40, wasn't supposed to be on the roads. He hadn't had a valid license since 2002, and he'd been convicted 15 times for driving anyway.
Brown died. So did her baby. And within weeks, Chicago aldermen decided that the courts weren't doing enough to punish and deter the thousands of drivers ticketed a year for driving on a suspended or revoked license. So the city added that crime to its list of more than a dozen impoundable offenses.
Before such ordinances, usually only abandoned or junk vehicles were impounded. Arrests led to impoundments only if the vehicles couldn't be safely parked or driven away.
If the crimes were serious enough — such as running drugs — a state seizure law let police impound and permanently take the vehicles. But it wasn't easy. Authorities had to prove vehicle owners knew or should have known about the crimes. Many cars weren't worth the effort.
Now, with impound ordinances, localities can cash in with far less hassle.
Municipalities emphasize that they often impound and levy fees for crimes that can lead to crashes, such as unlicensed or drunken driving. Researchers say impounds in those cases help keep the roads safer.
But many communities extend the hook to drivers deemed more annoying than dangerous. Cars thumping loud music were among the first to be slapped with impound fees in some communities. And, as new suburbs adopt the practice, the list of towable sins grows long, unique from place to place, from the serious to the mundane.
You can be forced to pay a $300 administrative fee to get your car back in Bolingbrook if you are arrested for treason.
Or pay $400 in Romeoville for having an obstructed windshield.
Or $500 in Bloomingdale for shooting someone from your car.
Or the same amount in Chicago Heights for loading someone's curbside trash into your car without a special permit.
Some places have limited ordinances, such as Oak Park, where only illegal guns can draw a $500 impound fee. Police have never imposed it, instead sticking to the state seizure law.
Other places have broad impound powers and gladly return vehicles in exchange for cash. That includes the region's most prolific tower, Markham.
The south suburb charges a $500 fee for crimes ranging from soliciting prostitutes to ferrying illegal fireworks. In the past fiscal year, it towed nearly 1,000 vehicles and collected nearly $350,000. That's more than $28 per resident.
Its chief referred questions to the city attorney, who could not be reached.
The next-biggest tower was another south suburb, Evergreen Park.
The suburb's high rate of collections — about $27 per resident — didn't surprise police Capt. Greg LeCompte. The village is bisected by the heavily traveled 95th Street.
"We do have a lot of officers out there, and they work — they are workers," he said.
Larissa Harrington's car was towed in Waukegan in 2003 because her son hadn't renewed his driver's license.
Police had stopped him for driving 46 mph in a 30-mph zone, noted his expired license and called for the Ford Escort to be towed. He called his parents. They got there before the truck.
"Please don't take my car, officer. I am here," Larissa Harrington told police, according to court records. "Can you please release it to me and my husband?"
The officer said he couldn't.
Harrington paid more than $600 to get it back. She sued to stop the practice. And U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow ruled her tow was, in fact, an unlawful seizure of her property.
That 2006 ruling remains on appeal, but it helped push at least 38 suburbs to soften their impound ordinances to avoid situations such as Harrington's. Those suburbs allow someone else to legally drive a vehicle away, if the driver can quickly arrange it.
To Hinsdale police Chief Bradley Bloom, it's only fair.
"Just like everything we do, if we are not reasonable and fair in our application, we risk losing public support," Bloom said.
But the Tribune found most suburbs' ordinances still call for police to automatically tow.
North Chicago says it interprets the ruling to limit tows only in cases involving expired licenses. Every other crime is fair game to automatically tow.
That's why police in June impounded the car of 79-year-old Nancy Boyland.
Her grandson was driving her sedan when police caught him with two small bags of marijuana. Police stopped him a half-block from Boyland's house but wouldn't allow Boyland's son to drive the car home.
Her grandson awaits his fate on the misdemeanor charge, while Boyland is out more than $600 to retrieve her 1993 Mercury.
"I'm retired. I had to use my credit card. I don't have that kind of money," she said.
Those towed quickly find out the price tag to bail out their cars can be more than the cars are worth.
Before the advent of administrative fees, owners paid only the costs of the tow truck and storage — usually under $200. The municipalities' added administrative fees have tripled or quadrupled costs.
At a recent Downers Grove hearing, Scott Petersen asked why he had to pay the $500 administrative fee on top of towing costs and the criminal fines a judge may later impose for driving on a suspended license.
Administrative hearing officer Victor Puscas shrugged.
"You know, that's a good question," said Puscas. "I would agree with you. I guess it's kind of an arbitrary number."
Puscas said the administrative fee is meant to cover the costs to police for the tow and the arrest. In ordinance after ordinance, suburban officials said the same thing. But a handful of officials surveyed by the Tribune couldn't offer any detailed cost breakdowns to justify the fees.
One town, however, did the math.
Hickory Hills Chief Alan Vodicka said an officer may take up to two hours to handle an impound case. An officer is paid $35 an hour on the high end. Add $15 for a half-hour of a dispatcher's time, and an extra $15 for incidentals.
The grand total: $100.
Vodicka said he thinks the courts should determine punishment: "I don't think it is our job to pile on and add on to that."
Most suburbs don't share that concern, with 85 charging at least $500 in administrative fees. Eight charge more than that.
One town, Cicero, takes fees a step further. It charges owners more if they pick up their vehicles right away.
For most crimes, from resisting police to having overly tinted windows, Cicero's fee to pick up the vehicle starts at $800, dropping $100 a day before leveling off at $500. Marijuana possession starts at $1,000. For a car involved in a shooting, it starts at $9,500.
Owners hoping to avoid fees must turn to officials from the very places that towed them.
At towns' mercy
Tow appeals are handled at local hearings, where rules are tougher on vehicle owners than those in county courts.
At hearings, police have to show only that, more likely than not, somebody in the vehicle committed a crime listed in the town's impound ordinance. The only real defense allowed is if someone reports a vehicle stolen.
Refunds are the exception at area hearings.
Jean Wells couldn't get one.
Recently laid off as a mail processor, she had to pay $150 in tow fees and a $400 administrative fine to get her 14-year-old car back. Wells said she needed that money to pay her rent.
She came to Romeoville's hearing and told Deputy police Chief Mark Turvey she didn't know her boyfriend lacked a license. Plus, the officer refused to let her drive the car away from the scene.
Turvey explained coolly that the law called for the car to be towed so they could "recoup some of the costs" of the arrest.
He declined the plea for a refund. Case closed.