Tune-Up On Chicago’s Controversial Impoundment Program Clears First Hurdle In City Council

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposal to revamp the program cleared committee Friday but still needs approval from the full council.

Impound Chicago
The Chicago impound lot on the City's West Side at 701 N Sacramento Blvd. Bradley French / WBEZ
Impound Chicago
The Chicago impound lot on the City's West Side at 701 N Sacramento Blvd. Bradley French / WBEZ

Tune-Up On Chicago’s Controversial Impoundment Program Clears First Hurdle In City Council

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposal to revamp the program cleared committee Friday but still needs approval from the full council.

A proposal by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to revamp the city’s vehicle impoundment program cleared a major hurdle in City Council Friday.

After one hour of debate, the Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety approved the changes laid out in a 16-page ordinance.

Last month, Lightfoot introduced a slew of new changes after a WBEZ investigation found significant problems with the way police seize vehicles during some arrests and found the program left thousands of drivers owing thousands of dollars in storage fees.

The proposal, which still needs full City Council approval, would 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.

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 city’s Finance Department has since halted collection on the impound cases pending a review to determine whether fees were properly assessed.

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.

A representative from Lightfoot’s office said the previous administration implemented the policy to raise revenue, not necessarily to deter crime.

“I believe that this ordinance is really well intentioned, and I will be voting yes on this, but I really encourage the city across multiple departments to really study the effectiveness,” said Ald. Daniel La Spata, 1st Ward. “If the goal really is deterrence, then, then we owe it to our citizens to determine … whether this is really deterring dangerous behaviors, but also to try to understand what are the unintended consequences of this law. What happens to Chicagoans when we take their vehicles away for a number of months?”

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 this one offense, and most 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.

Elliott Ramos is WBEZ’s data editor. Follow him @ChicagoEl. Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.