Chicago’s City Council approved a reform package by Mayor Lori Lightfoot that would drastically change the way police impound vehicles.
The measure was approved without opposition, and would amount to the largest change to the city’s impound system in recent history.
Over the years, investigations by Reason Magazine, ProPublica Illinois, and WBEZ have raised questions about the program, and last month, Lightfoot introduced a slew of new changes after WBEZ revealed significant problems with the way police seize vehicles during some arrests and found the program left drivers owing tens of thousands of dollars in storage fees.
Much of those storage fees were inflated because of user and computer error, as well as decisions to raise caps under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration.
The new changes will cap storage fees to $1,000 and credit individuals whose cars were disposed of. In Chicago, cars caught in the impound system are sold to the city’s private towing contractor for scrap prices typically less than $200.
The city’s finance department has also halted collection on the impound cases pending a review to determine whether fees were properly assessed.
The biggest change to the impound system would end automatic impoundment for those driving on a suspended license if the underlying cause of the suspension was parking tickets. WBEZ found that more than 100,000 drivers were arrested for driving on a suspended or revoked license — most of whom never saw criminal charges — but were on the hook for thousands in municipal fines even after losing their vehicle to the city.
The city and state passed laws ending the practice of license suspensions for parking tickets, but tens of thousands are indebted to the city, with many of the cases being associated with a bankruptcy.
“It is critical that we take this step to help residents that for far too long have suffered at a disproportional impact from an outdated program that too frequently resulted in thousands of dollars in fines and loss of personal property,” Lightfoot said last month.
Lightfoot also sought to end many low-level offenses that would trigger an automatic impound such as playing loud music or littering. WBEZ found that police mostly enforced these ordinances in majority-Black neighborhoods.
In a committee hearing last week, a representative from Lightfoot’s office said the previous administration implemented the policy to raise revenue, not necessarily to deter crime.
In a separate vote on Wednesday, aldermen also approved a $5 million settlement to a lawsuit that alleges Chicago police urged lenders to repossess impounded cars.
The city is facing two additional class-action lawsuits regarding the impound program. One case, brought on by the Institute for Justice, alleges that the city’s impound fines are excessive and that the city provides “constitutionally inadequate notice” of when and how to challenge impounds, among other procedural problems.
Additionally, there is a pending case before the U.S. Supreme Court alleging that Chicago sought to hold vehicles of indebted drivers after they declared bankruptcy.
The new changes will take effect next month.
Elliott Ramos is WBEZ’s data editor. Follow him @ChicagoEl.