A federal judge is allowing parts of a lawsuit challenging Chicago’s vehicle impoundment program to move forward, marking yet another development in the years-long unraveling of the city’s towing practices.
The lawsuit was filed last year by the Institute for Justice, a legal group which calls itself “the National Law Firm for Liberty.” The suit alleged the city’s impound program was unconstitutional because it assessed excessive fees.
Federal District Court Judge Mary Rowland dismissed that part of the suit, but allowed other parts of it to proceed under a claim the program violated state law on proportionate penalties.
“Chicago’s unjust impound program subjects innocent car owners to sky-high fines and fees,” said IJ attorney Diana Simpson. “We look forward to continuing to fight on behalf of Chicagoans who have been victimized by the city’s ‘seize first, hearing later’ process.”
A recent WBEZ investigation revealed that over the past decade, Chicago police initiated hundreds of thousands of impounds during arrests for misdemeanors in predominantly Black neighborhoods. WBEZ also revealed that officials had intentionally raised caps on impound storage fees in an attempt to generate additional revenue.
However, a combination of computer and human error by police and city workers created flaws in vehicle inventory data. Those flaws, coupled with the lifting of caps, left many drivers owing thousands of dollars in fines for arrests that almost never saw criminal charges.
Last month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced a reform package that sought to undo and mitigate much of the financial harm caused by the impound program. Those reforms, which ended automatic impoundment for violations such as littering or playing loud music, were passed by City Council. But the lawsuits against the city pressed on.
Kathleen Fieweger is the spokesperson for the city’s Law Department and hailed the development as a victory for the city.
“While some aspects of the suit will move forward, the City prevailed on our motion to dismiss for the most part, and we believe we will prevail on the outstanding issues as well,” she said in a statement.
“The city has made significant changes to its impound programs, which advance the mayor’s policies as we continue to work toward fines and fees reform.”
The city halted collections on vehicle impoundment cases until all the fines and fees could be properly assessed after accounting for inventory errors. The mayor also reduced administrative penalties for some of the crimes to pre-2011 levels — the year that former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration raised fees associated with the program.
The narrowed suit also claims the city failed to provide adequate notice to vehicle owners before selling off their cars. Another WBEZ investigation found the city’s private towing contractor reaped a windfall by buying tens of thousands of cars annually for less than $200 a piece.
“We look forward to continuing to fight for our clients,” said Kirby West, another IJ attorney. “Moving into the discovery phase of the suit will give Chicagoans a peek behind the curtain of the city’s impound program. While our lawsuit has prompted important reforms, there is still a long way to go before we can get justice for Windy City car owners.”
Elliott Ramos is WBEZ’s data editor. Follow him @ChicagoEl.