Last month, Chicago’s aldermen spent nearly an hour of their virtual council meeting debating whether the city should add Juneteenth, the day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, to its list of paid holidays.
That didn’t happen, but the proposal’s theme of racial justice permeated the meeting. It had been just three weeks since the city erupted in violence after the police killing of George Floyd, a Black resident of Minneapolis, and tensions were high in the council chambers.
Progressive Chicago aldermen mounted a failed attempt to stop the Chicago Police Department from receiving federal COVID-19 relief funds. Others had tried to remove police officers from public schools. And, Ald. Lesli Hairston (5th) blasted colleagues for making light of officers who lounged in a U.S. representative’s office while looters ransacked a nearby strip mall in a predominantly Black neighborhood.
One proposal floated that day has gotten little attention as a platform for “police reform.” But social justice advocates and others say, if passed by committee and the full City Council in the coming weeks, it could change how justice and punishment are meted out to thousands of suspects who are drawn into the criminal justice system while driving on city streets.
The 16-page proposal introduced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot would reform the city’s Vehicle Impoundment Program, which allows officers to seize a car if it was used during the commission of low-level crimes or misdemeanors. Over the years, investigations by Reason Magazine, ProPublica Illinois, and WBEZ have raised questions about the program. Now, as reforms are being considered, WBEZ is exposing the impoundment program’s vast scope and its cost to residents. We’re also raising new questions about the program’s accountability and how deeply it’s ingrained in policing practices.
Among our findings:
Chicago police initiated nearly 250,000 vehicle seizures since 2010
Drivers’ debt associated with program fees and penalties swelled to more than $600 million
Debt was inflated due to computer and user errors
The majority of seizures were never associated with criminal charges
Many drivers were found automatically liable for municipal fines without getting a hearing
The majority of people caught in the program came from Black communities
WBEZ uncovered these cases by analyzing data from several city agencies, obtained by more than 100 public records requests. The findings were presented to Lightfoot’s administration starting last fall.“We dug into the details and saw it made less and less sense and realized pretty quickly that it was an area that absolutely needed reform,” she said in a recent interview.
The scope of the Vehicle Impoundment Program
Not to be confused with Chicago’s asset forfeiture program or boot-and-tow program, the Vehicle Impound Program involves the police seizing a car during a stop for some violation and the city holding onto the car until the offender pays the fine for the offense. Usually, a seizure starts after an officer stops a driver for violations of state law or city ordinance.
Violations for vehicle impoundment:
Unlawful possession of a firearm
Possession of unlawful drugs
Possession of unlawful fireworks
Possession of paint intended for graffiti or defacement
Driving while intoxicated
Driving with a revoked or suspended license
Having false or stolen license plates, or altering temporary plates
Street solicitation for prostitution
Playing music too loudly
Reckless driving at, or interfering with, a funeral procession
Officers then have the car towed to a city pound.
Arrestees can sometimes appear at an administrative hearing and be cleared of liability, but not always. Usually, the car won’t be returned until the arrestee pays the fine for the violation (say, $500 for possessing fireworks), as well as any associated fees. As of this year, administrative penalties typically cost $1,000, tow fees are close to $150, and storage fees run as high as $35 per day. Court costs and attorney’s fees can also apply.
Sometimes cars are held by police for months, and daily fees can pile up into the thousands. Many car owners stop trying when the fines exceed the value of the car.
Lightfoot acknowledges there’s no city ordinance to stop this.
“Once the car gets into the system, there are really no limits on the amount of storage fees, which for a lot of people’s cars, can quickly get to the blue book value of the car,” she said.
The effects on an individual driver can be financially devastating.
Take the case of Wesley Fannings, who lives in the Ashburn neighborhood with his mother, a school principal.
Fannings owes nearly $10,000 for a single traffic stop. (A letter from Fanning’s mother gave us a tip that led to our two-year investigation into the impoundment program.)
In March 2015, he was pulled over for expired registration. He said that he didn’t get the sticker yet because he had only just passed the required emissions test. He said the officer smelled marijuana hidden in a Coke can.
“And three other cops showed up,” he said. “They put me in the car to be taken to the precinct, Wentworth, to be exact. [I] had to take a photo and all of that. Then they put me in my own cell.”
At the time, he was working as a janitor.
Fannings said he lost his job after spending that night in jail, and that police told him “They’re going to impound. They never really explain where it was going.”
Fanning’s criminal charges were dropped, as the city had decriminalized possession of small amounts of weed three years prior. Regardless, the impound ordinance related to possession was left on the books, meaning Fanning still owed a $2,000 administrative fine for the ordinance violation. He couldn’t afford to get his car back. At the impound, his car accumulated $5,070 in storage fees and $2,234 in interest.
Fanning’s debt pales in comparison to that of some other drivers, some of who owe more than $50,000.
Utilizing data from the police, and the departments of Streets & Sanitation, Finance, and Administrative Hearings, WBEZ found that roughly 1,600 people owed fines greater than $10,000, and more than 32,000 people owed fines greater than $5,000.
The impoundment program doesn’t just impose deep fines on a small pool of violators, though. According to towing data from Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation, city police initiate an average of 22,000 vehicle seizures each year. Over the past decade, that’s translated into nearly 250,000 seizures.
The impound laws were meant to be applied across all 50 of the city’s wards, but in practice, they’ve been disproportionately applied in minority neighborhoods. Many quality-of-life offenses (e.g., playing loud music or littering) were almost exclusively enforced in Black neighborhoods.
Vehicle impounds by violation 2008-2018
An analysis of Streets and Sanitation towing data over a ten-year period show that enforcement of the city’s crime related tows are enforced in majority-Black wards.
City Hall’s incremental pile-on
How did Chicago’s Vehicle Impoundment Program grow into a system that has swept up a quarter-million cars and more than $600 million in debt?
Put simply, aldermen incrementally added offenses over the years that would trigger impounds. In arguments made during committee or floor debates, many said they were being responsive to neighborhood nuisance complaints. Sometimes, they used the impoundment program to deter residents from committing minor offenses, or to punish those who weren’t deterred. Sometimes program expansions were approved to raise revenue.
Some of the impound fines were introduced – and welcomed – by many minority aldermen, despite being disproportionately enforced in minority neighborhoods.
In 1999, former 31st Ward Alderman Ray Suarez, the sponsor of the noise ordinance, told the Chicago Tribune “I believe I am considered a minority … this ordinance was not meant to affect minorities.”
Some impound fines were uncontroversial when introduced. In 2016, Ald. Raymond Lopez saw tire dumps popping up in the 15th Ward, so that year he convinced the Council to raise impound fines for fly dumping up to $5,000. Despite the media blitz, less than 20 “dumping” impounds have been initiated since then.
Last year, Lightfoot was updating several cannabis ordinances. Her goal was to remove laws that would impound vehicles for possession of cannabis, which was to become legal for recreational use in the state. West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), predicted the mayor’s version would drive a “Mack truck through” the police’s ability to impound for harder drugs, such as heroin.
As in past deliberations, aldermen raised the fear of harder drugs as a reason to keep weed on the impound list. In 2012, aldermen were approving the use of tickets for marijuana offense as a first step to decriminalize the drug, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a concession that kept the impound and fines on the city’s books.
That decision would later have drastic consequences. Wesley Fannings was just one of thousands still getting arrested and fined for weed because they were caught with the drug in a car instead of on the street.
Ervin eventually acknowledged that high fines, vehicle impoundment and incarceration were “definitely used as a tool against African Americans and Hispanics.” In November of last year, the City Council approved a compromise that allowed impounds only for those selling cannabis without a license.
Suspended licenses: the biggest addition
No ordinance had as drastic an impact as the one that allowed impoundment for driving with a suspended license.
As early as 2007 aldermen had suggested that seizing vehicles of drivers on the road with suspended licenses might save lives, and they prevailed in 2009, after a pregnant woman was fatally struck on the West Side.
At that time, license suspensions were usually tied to DUIs or lapsed emissions testing.
But starting in 2011, Mayor Emanuel promoted red-light cameras and boosted many fines.
In a budget committee hearing that year, then-city budget director Alexandra Holt also pushed to double many of the city’s VIP fines from $500 to $1,000.
According to transcripts of budget hearings, Holt predicted that higher fines alone would bring in at least an additional $14 million.
But during the hearing, Holt also told the head of the Finance Committee the VIP program could bring in more. “There are fines associated with the tow, as well as well as the storage, and also the ability to get your vehicle back,” she said.
The city was in dire financial straits after the 2008 housing market collapse, and fines and fees were politically safer than increasing property and other taxes.
The fee increases, combined with policies that allowed Chicago to suspend driver’s licenses for failure to pay various municipal fines, had profound effects. More and more residents fell behind in paying parking fines and city sticker costs, among other things, so license suspensions based on municipal debt skyrocketed.
Many of these drivers ended up being stopped by police. According to Streets and Sanitation data, since 2010, more than 100,000 drivers were arrested and fined for this one ordinance violation and had their vehicles impounded. The vast majority of the seizures occurred on the city’s South and West Sides.
The city continued to impound cars for license suspensions based on city debt even after 2017, when Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx stopped prosecuting such cases in criminal courts. That effort was part of a broader effort to dismiss charges for less violent offenses.
The state law went into effect this month, with results that surprised officials and advocates: nearly 75,000 licenses were restored in Illinois, with 55,000 of them in Chicago alone. As ProPublica Illinois reported, most of those suspensions had originated in majority Black neighborhoods.
Storage fee errors added fuel to the fire
Chicago drivers weren’t pinched just by higher fines on a widening array of violations that could trigger impounds. According to city finance data, storage fees began to take a bigger bite — and much of that growth came about because of mistakes likely made at various departments.
Before 2014, the city had a long-standing practice of capping storage fees associated with seized cars, according to the Finance Department. There was not (and still is not)a mandated cap set by Chicago ordinance.
But an analysis of city finance data shows that in September of that year, the department no longer applied the cap. Two seizure cases show when the change kicked in. The seizures took place just one day apart; one driver owed $610 in storage fees (the de facto cap), while the other was liable for $3,075.
According to City Comptroller Reshma Soni, the previous administration lifted the caps, likely in an attempt to offset the enormous cost of running the impound system. But that didn’t explain examples where some were charged more than $10,000 in storage fees.
WBEZ presented those cases to the Finance Department. After months of review, officials found that many with outsized fines and fees stemmed from a combination of computer and human-entry error. Finance officials said some of the most expensive cases lacked inventory release dates, which kept the clock ticking on storage fees.
Part of the issue, Soni said, is that basic data has to be converted or tracked across several departments.
“It might be correctly entered in one system, and pulled incorrectly in another that’s calculating the fee,” she said.
Soni said the Finance Department is conducting a full-scale review of the impound debt, and that as of now, the city stopped collecting on impoundment cases.
“We want to be able to see if we have any specific issues we can correct and then apply them retroactively,” she said.
In a statement, the mayor’s office acknowledged WBEZ’s role in uncovering the impound issues and influencing its reform package: “WBEZ’s data analysis helped identify troubling trends in the operation of the Vehicle Impoundment Program, which influenced provisions in the Ordinance.”
Impoundment as policing strategy
Chicago aldermen may have intended the impoundment program to address residents’ concerns about crime and quality of life. But they may have also unwittingly given the police department wide latitude to initiate stops and — ultimately — impound cars.
There’s strong evidence that the department’s use of impounds had become routine policing policy.
For one, during stops, officers impound cars more often than they charge people for a crime.
In effect, this means that they issue tickets for violations of city ordinances. The holding of the car is an incentive for violators to pay off the ticket, and judgments are made by the city’s own Administrative Hearings. But police regularly side-step the option of issuing state citations for the offense, which would involve the suspect appearing in traffic court.
Increasingly, prosecutors balk at following up on so many small charges — particularly for possession of small amounts of marijuana and debt- or ticket-based license suspensions. If an officer applies a fine, it’s often for a municipal ordinance.
Chicago police arrested nearly 100,000 people for driving on a suspended license since 2010, and only a third had crime incident reports attached to them. During that same time, the police impounded 30,000 cars for narcotics, with the majority of cases tied to marijuana possession, which the city effectively decriminalized in 2012 and Illinois legalized this year.
When asked about discrepancies between vehicle seizures and arrests, the Chicago Police Department said that public safety and constitutional policing are not mutually exclusive.
Maggie Huynh, a department spokesperson, said in a statement that the police department “remains committed to ensuring residents are treated equally, fairly and with respect.”
Another example of how closely the impound program is entwined with policing has to do with the fact that officers began to interact with drivers far more often than pedestrians.
In 2016 scrutiny was increasing over the department’s use of stop-and-frisk. The number of pedestrian stops by police fell, but car stops soared.
According to the ACLU, the number of traffic stops more than tripled, rising from 85,965 in 2015 to 187,133 in 2016, then jumping to 285,067 in 2017.
Karen Sheley, director of the police practices project for the ACLU of Illinois, told the Tribune last year that she could only speculate on the sudden increase in traffic stops.
“It could be a policy shift from stopping people as pedestrians to stopping people in cars, and that’s something that the city should be accountable for and tell the public,” she said.
To that, spokesperson Huynh said, “Officers are trained to stop vehicles after a traffic violation or potential crime has occurred,” adding that while the department deploys more resources to areas with more violent crime, “we do not target individuals based on race or community.”
Lastly, the department tracks numbers of impounds and traffic stops in the activity scores for specialized anti-drug and anti-violence units. Many officers will seek to serve on a unit because it “carries prestige” and is considered a “step-up,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice report on Chicago policing issued three years ago. A units’ arrests and other activities are logged in department data. Notably, impounds contribute to a team’s score.
The DOJ noted the department relies on these specialized units to conduct “hot spot” policing.
According to the report, “These specialized teams, such as the tactical (TACT), gang, saturation, and narcotics units, do not answer service calls, but aggressively seek out problematic activity by conducting traffic stops, making contacts, and effecting arrests.”
The authors continue, saying the department encourages traffic stops to cut down on shootings but, “there was no discussion about, or apparent consideration of, whether such a tactic was an effective use of police resources to identify possible shooters, or of the negative impact it could have on police-community relations.”
Critics such as Alexandra Natapoff, a professor of law at Harvard University, have noted such impacts.
In Punishment Without Crime, she writes how most Americans associate the “criminal justice system” with violent crime. In an interview, she said that they should also recognize how aggressive enforcement of small offenses can devastate residents “where a minor charge like driving on a suspended license or a drug possession charge can become an invitation for the state to take your money, to lock you up, to take your car, to destroy your credit, to prevent you from getting jobs.”
“Eighty percent of American criminal cases are misdemeanors,” she said, “and we need to take the insights that we have learned from the mass incarceration conversation and extend it to the full reality of what our criminal system does every day to the most people.”
Lightfoot’s impoundment reform proposal heads to a City Council committee this week. Aldermen could make it law later this month.
If passed, would it change the program much?
For starters, it would remove half a dozen offenses from the list of those that qualify for the Vehicle Impoundment Program, including those related to many license suspensions and low-level marijuana cases. The changes have the potential to affect as many as 80% of cases.
State legislation already restored thousands of Chicagoans’ drivers’ licenses that had been suspended because of parking tickets, but Lightfoot’s proposal would also end impounds for suspensions related to red-light and speeding camera tickets.
She also proposes a $1,000 cap on storage fees.
A major sticking point is what to do about hundreds of millions of dollars in outstanding debt from previous years’ license suspension and marijuana arrests.
Officials have sought to expunge some 700,000 marijuana cases in the state, after it became legalized. Another 75,000 Illinois driving licenses have been reinstated because of outstanding parking tickets.
Some aldermen and social justice advocates want the city to consider forgiving that debt. Lightfoot said that idea needs more review.
“That’s definitely something we’re looking at and trying to gather data [on],” she said. “Fundamentally, we want to put people back to work and not feel like bankruptcy is their only option because of debt to the city.”
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), who is on the committee that will take up the proposal, thinks the city should be doing more to help those affected by the city’s ticketing and debt-collection practices.
“What are we doing to bring relief to communities?” he said.
Sigcho-Lopez said that, so far, the city’s efforts have fallen short. “I don’t think we can go back to normal. [We] forgot about the city stickers,” he said, referring to the debt piled on from ticketing in low-income neighborhoods.
Lawyers are also skeptical about whether the proposals go far enough.
Last year, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning legal group, brought a class-action lawsuit against the city’s impound program.
Lead attorney Diana Simpson said Lightfoot’s ordinance is a good first step, but “Unfortunately, I don’t think that this goes far enough. It certainly doesn’t go far enough for our lawsuit, and we will continue pressing our lawsuit.”
The suit alleges the city provides “constitutionally inadequate notice” of when and how to challenge impounds, among other procedural problems.
Procedures targeted in the suit are not directly addressed in Lightfoot’s reforms.
At issue is the fact that in half of the city’s VIP cases, drivers were automatically found liable for failure to request a hearing, suggesting that there are serious issues with the notification process. WBEZ uncovered this in an analysis of administrative hearings data.
Simpson’s suit, now in federal court, also claims that Chicago’s impound fines are constitutionally excessive.
“We see fines and fees are just proliferating. Governments often turn to them when they have a hard time generating revenue or they don’t want to increase taxes. They don’t have to deal with the political ramifications of that,” Simpson said, adding that fines and fees often amount to regressive taxes on the poor and minorities.
On that point, Lightfoot and Simpson appear to be in agreement.
“Any time we do this, somebody asks me, ‘Mayor, is this going to cost a lot of money?’ In some instances, we will be putting people back to work,” Lightfoot said.
“Fundamentally, it’s just the right thing to do.”
Elliott Ramos is WBEZ’s data editor. Follow him @ChicagoEl.