CHICAGO—Two more Chicago area residents joined a lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice (IJ) seeking to end Chicago’s unconstitutional impound scheme. Each year, Chicago impounds tens of thousands of cars, imposing harsh penalties and rapidly accruing towing and storage fees on their owners. The system traps even innocent owners in its bureaucratic maze.
Since filing the suit in April 2019, IJ attorneys have heard from hundreds of Chicagoans struggling to get their cars out of impound. These included Allie Nelson and Lewrance Gant, both of whom had their cars impounded through no fault of their own and now owe the city thousands of dollars in fines, and towing and storage fees.
“Our class action lawsuit is on behalf of everyone trapped in Chicago’s unjust impound system,” said IJ Attorney Diana Simpson. “By adding more named plaintiffs, we strengthen the case against that system. Allie and Lewrance did nothing wrong, yet the city of Chicago took their cars and is demanding that they pay thousands of dollars. Chicago’s impound scheme treats innocent car owners like criminals. That’s not just wrong, it’s unconstitutional and it needs to stop.”
Allie Nelson, a retired law enforcement officer, was born and raised in Chicago and has lived in the city most of her life. In October 2017, Nelson was in Houston, Tex., recuperating from cancer treatments. She left her car with her granddaughter, along with strict instructions that her granddaughter’s then-boyfriend was not allowed to drive the vehicle. Unfortunately, that direction was ignored.
Police pulled over the car while the boyfriend was driving, claiming the car had a cracked windshield. They discovered marijuana in the car, seized the vehicle and had it towed to an impound lot. Nelson’s granddaughter was a passenger, and police left her on the side of the road without her purse or cell phone, forcing her to walk to get help after dark.
In February 2018, an administrative law officer determined that Nelson was liable for a $2,000 fine for unlawful drugs in a motor vehicle and $3,925 in towing and storage fees. Nelson cannot afford to pay that and was informed that the city had disposed of her car. This, despite the fact that Nelson was not even in the city when the car was impounded, and all charges were dropped against the driver.
“I didn’t do anything wrong, but Chicago destroyed my car and I still owe the city for it. I’ll do whatever it takes to right this wrong,” said Nelson.
Lewrance Gant is a retired limousine driver who has lived in the Chicago area for 60 years. Gant regularly lent his car to a long-time friend. In March 2019, police pulled that friend over, saying he had failed to come to a complete stop at an intersection. Police discovered that the friend’s license was suspended for unpaid tickets and also alleged that there was a bag of marijuana in the car. The vehicle was seized and impounded.
Gant was unaware that his friend had a suspended license and has never known him to use drugs. While the city dropped the drug charges and moving violations against the friend, an administrative law officer still held Gant liable, assessing a $1,000 fine for driving with a suspended license and $3,750 in towing and storage fees. Gant cannot afford to pay the $4,750 in fines and fees, and his car remains at the impound lot.
The lawsuit is currently in the U.S. District Court for the District of Northern Illinois. Recent ticketing reforms signed by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot did not address the city’s impound program.