Lawsuit Critical of Chicago Police Car Impound Practices | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Lawsuit Critical of Chicago Police Car Impound Practices

If Chicago police seize your car as part of an investigation and take it to lot number one on the city's South Side, there's no way to contest the seizure. There's no judge or administrative officer to make your case to. At least that's how some local attorneys see it. They're suing the city on behalf of 15,000 people whose cars have been towed and they're asking a federal judge to immediately stop the city from taking people's cars this way.

One day this past March, Vivian Jarrett, had just returned from the laundromat. Her car was in front of her place on 51st.

JARRETT: Exactly, right here is where we were parked.

She went into her second floor apartment and then her nephew rang the doorbell and told her to come outside.

JARRETT: I come down, half of the Chicago Police department got the whole sidewalk blocked off.

The police wanted to know about her car. She was talking to the cops in the blue shirts when a commanding officer joined the conversation.

JARRETT: The white shirt got out. He said this car has an "APB" out on it. I said an "APB" for what. He said to seize the car and seize all occupants.

The car was taken and Jarrett says she spent about 26 hours in jail for what was essentially a case of mistaken identity. The detective who had put out the APB came to interview her.

JARRETT: She looked at me, she said you're not who I'm looking for. I said I know I'm not who you lookin for. I said, "who are you looking for?" She said, "your sister Sharrice Jarrett."

Jarrett says her sister is a drug addict who often uses her name when she's picked up by the police. Once that was figured out, Jarrett was released but she still had to get her car. She thought it was a simple mix-up that could be sorted out easily. She went to the impound lot and talked to an officer in the trailer by the gate and asked him for a hearing.

JARRETT: He said okay, I'll give you a hearing. So I'm thinking he fenna go get a judge. Somebody with some authority. He asked me, your name Vivian Jarrett...

PETERS: They're not hearings. You can call up and say you have my car and you should never have taken my car and I really shouldn't have to pay you any money for my car and by the way I have 25 witnesses including my priest and my husband's rabbi, it makes no difference who the witnesses are. You always lose.

Tom Peters is the attorney that Vivian Jarrett found in the yellow pages. Lucky for her, he's sued the city several times over the last 15 years on towing issues. He added Jarrett as one of the named plaintiffs in a lawsuit that covers 15,000 people whose cars were impounded by the city over a five year period. Peters says the rights of all of them were violated.

PETERS: An independent person, a judge, is supposed to make the decision as to whether the original tow was lawful and whether the continued detention was lawful. But the way the city operates, the judge never is in the picture.

Peters says the so-called hearing is held by a police officer with no experience in administrative law, or rules of evidence. And Peters says the officer as a city employee is not exactly a disinterested party in the hearing.

PETERS: The city has a vested interest in collecting the towing and storage costs. That money goes back into the city's coffers.

Vivian Jarrett did eventually get her car back though it took almost two months and at $35 a day the storage fees added up quickly.

JARRETT: I got to pay you $2000 dollars for something that's legally mine and I broke no laws. That's crazy.

To pay for the car Jarrett had to use up the money that she got when her mother died, money she had put into a CD for her daughter's college education. But the cost isn't just in dollars. The whole experience has completely changed the way Jarrett looks at police.

JARRETT: And I always had heard about how corrupted they were but I thought people just say that because, you know, they trying to justify the reason they did what they did and they use the race card, or the police brutality card, I never used them cards. But this one, it was just that the police proved that we can really do whatever we want to do to people.
Jarrett's lawyer Tom Peters is hoping to get her her money back, plus some for her trouble and some to compensate her for the fact that her rights were violated, something he wants to do for all 15,000 people that are part of the class action lawsuit. A spokeswoman for the city's law department was unable to provide details on the case despite repeated emails and calls over the course of several weeks but she did say the attorneys have been discussing a settlement.

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