Chicago’s tow-and-sell operations for indebted drivers is unconstitutional, according to yet another federal class-action lawsuit filed on Tuesday against the city’s impound program.
The lawsuit cited WBEZ’s investigations into the city’s towing system and named two plaintiffs: Danyetta Walker and Joseph Walawski of Cook County.
Walawski started a pizza delivery job when his car was booted, towed and sold to a private company after racking up three outstanding tickets.
“I’m faced with a dilemma. Either I pay off my tickets, or I pay the bank, or I pay my rent,” he said.
“I had to make a decision on which way that was going to go. It’s like when you have a pie, you have only so many pieces of the pie.”
As WBEZ previously reported, the boot-and-towing program for indebted drivers funnels thousands of seized vehicles to a private contractor, United Road Towing, which was also named in the suit.
Walawski’s car was less than two years old at the time it was towed and sold by the city. He had an outstanding car loan of $17,000 and still owed the city storage and tow fees in addition to the ticket and collections debt.
The city sold his 2016 Nissan Sentra for $204.48, according to the suit.
Attorney Jacie Zolna is representing Walawski, and he has previously won a $39 million settlement against the city’s red-light camera program. He alleges the city’s punitive measures for unpaid tickets are excessive and unfair.
“The City’s tow program is destroying lives and harming our most vulnerable citizens,” he said at a press conference.
Over the last two years, ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ have investigated Chicago’s ticketing and debt-collection practices. The program grew into a prominent issue in last year’s mayoral race, when then-candidate Lori Lightfoot campaigned on banning the boot.
Now as mayor, Lightfoot has passed several reforms, including: changing the way city sticker tickets are issued, extending the boot period another day and modifying payment plans to make it easier for low-income residents.
Those reforms are in addition to city and statewide legislation, which eliminated license suspensions for parking tickets. Vehicle seizures are still done for indebted drivers.
Lightfoot spokeswoman Lauren Huffman declined to comment on the lawsuit because she has not seen it. But she did say in a statement that the mayor’s administration is “actively working to evaluate the City’s complex impound systems to find ways to enhance them and ensure that residents aren’t losing their cars simply due to inability to pay.”
The city may need to accelerate those efforts as the lawsuits pile up.
Another lawsuit filed last year by the Institute for Justice is still working its way through the courts. That suit challenged the constitutionality of the city’s vehicle impoundment program which tows vehicles used during crimes. The Institute for Justice alleged that the city fined innocent owners who didn’t know their cars were used during an arrest.
Elliott Ramos is WBEZ’s data editor. Follow him on Twitter @ChicagoEl.