May 20, 2019

By Diana Simpson

When Veronica Walker-Davis’ car was damaged in an accident, she took it to a Chicago body shop for repairs. As the days without her car stretched into weeks, she started to worry, becoming less and less comforted by assurances that the shop was “just waiting on parts.” Finally, the shop came clean—an employee had taken the car for a joyride and been pulled over. When police discovered he was driving on a suspended license, they impounded the car.

It got worse from there. Veronica discovered that the government would not return her family car unless she paid thousands of dollars in fines and fees—for someone else’s crime.

Welcome to Chicago’s impound racket. While outrageous, Veronica’s story is not unique. In 2017 alone, Chicago impounded more than 22,000 cars, including cars owned by people who committed no crime, and imposed more than $28 million in related fines and fees. That’s why Veronica and her husband, Jerome, joined IJ in a class action lawsuit challenging Chicago’s impound scheme—and its myriad violations of constitutional rights.

Chicago tows and impounds cars for dozens of offenses—including littering, playing audio that can be heard 75 feet away, and carrying spray paint. Each violation carries an administrative fine of up to $3,000, and the city charges a towing fee plus daily storage fees that compound quickly. As if that weren’t enough, the city holds impounded cars hostage, refusing to release them until the owners pay everything.

Once your car is impounded, getting it back requires navigating a bureaucratic quagmire. The city is supposed to send you notice after impounding your car, but that notice is slow to arrive, if it ever does. You then have to make your way downtown at least three times—once to request a hearing and twice more to attend hearings—without the use of your impounded car. And once you’re in “court,” you face off against the city’s attorney in an upside-down world where innocence is rarely a defense.

Nobody should be forced to pay for someone else’s crime. Thanks to IJ’s historic U.S. Supreme Court victory in Timbs v. Indiana earlier this year, it is clear that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment applies to all levels of government, including the city of Chicago. Winning this case will allow IJ to build on this victory, establishing that any fine against an innocent owner is excessive.

Moreover, the government must have a good reason to take someone’s property and an equally good reason to keep it. Chicago’s only justification for keeping cars is to force their owners to pay up.

This slew of constitutional violations gives IJ the opportunity to bring multiple legal claims, each of which would establish groundbreaking new protections for private property rights or the right to due process. And by seeking class certification, IJ hopes to represent not only brave owners like Veronica and Jerome but also the thousands of others subjected to this scheme.

This challenge is complex, sweeping, and high stakes. It seeks systemic change in an area where abuse is rampant—just the kind of battle IJ is uniquely positioned to wage.

Diana Simpson is an IJ attorney.

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