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Illinois: Federal Lawsuit Takes On Towing For Profit
Lawyer takes on car confiscation for profit in Chicago, Illinois.

Jacie C. Zolna
A new federal lawsuit accuses the city of Chicago, Illinois, of grabbing cars off the street so that they could be held in return for the payment of hefty fees and fines. Lawyer Jacie C. Zolna says nearly twenty thousand cars were unlawfully taken in 2017 over ticket debt.

"They were all in good condition," Zolna explained in court filings. "None were abandoned, blocked traffic, or otherwise posed a hazard to the public. They were involved in no crime and their drivers were not arrested. These cars were all towed for just one reason: the city of Chicago wanted its money."

In 2018, the city collected $345 million in fines and penalties. Under the city's policy, anyone with between two or three unpaid traffic or parking tickets will be booted. The car is not released unless the tickets are paid -- for speed camera tickets, that usually means handing the city at least $832.

"Most Chicagoans just cannot raise that kind of money in that little time," Zolna wrote. "If the debt is not paid, the car is towed and impounded."

The impounded vehicle begins racking up more fees, starting with a $150 towing charge and a $100 storage fee for the first five days, which then rises to $35 per day. A ten-day tow would cost $1257, for example. If the owner does not pay up, the city takes the car and either keeps it or auctions it off -- generating $4,072,339 in 2017. The proceeds from the auction are not used in any way to pay down the debt.

"The end result is devastating: the owner loses a car -- usually their most important asset and only mode of transportation to get to work, school, etc -- and is left saddled not only with the existing ticket debt, but also hefty towing and storage fees," Zolna wrote. "This basic story, played out thousands of times every year, is unfortunate and unwise. It is also unconstitutional."

Zolna points out that the towing is performed after the tickets are fully adjudicated, meaning they can serve no legitimate law enforcement or public safety purpose. The city already has a suite of less intrusive collection tools at its disposal, including garnishing tax refunds and suspending licenses.

The city grabbed a two-year old Nissan Sentra worth $17,000 was towed and sold to the city's scandal-plagued vendor United Road Towing for just $204. Its owner, delivery driver Joseph Walawski, was never compensated for the taking, in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, according to Zolna.

In 2017, the city began its confiscation policy to get around court rulings that stayed ticket debt collection for drivers who declared bankruptcy. Zolna's new case also charged the city with ignoring a state law requiring proper notice to owners when their vehicle is towed.

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