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Reforms to Chicago’s Impound Program Are Not Enough

The Institute for Justice’s federal class action lawsuit to correct the program’s abuses will continue

CHICAGO—Today, the Chicago City Council amended its impound program to fix some of the glaring constitutional problems that led the Institute to Justice (IJ) to bring a class-action lawsuit against the city. That lawsuit challenges three aspects of the city’s impound scheme: its fining of vehicle owners for crimes they did not commit; its failure to provide owners with due process; and its requirement that the city hold cars as ransom until the owners pay all fines and fees the city demands. The lawsuit was brought by five Chicagoans who had their vehicles confiscated despite not doing anything wrong.

Today’s reform package fixes some, but not all, of these unconstitutional practices. It expands protections for innocent owners who are not present when their cars are towed. It reduces fines under the program and caps fees associated with impounds. And it provides a way for some owners to get their cars back.

“Cars are a lifeline to many Americans who use them to drive to work, buy groceries and otherwise live their daily lives, and no one should lose theirs to a city that holds them ransom,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Kirby Thomas West. “These reforms mean that far fewer people will suffer from this system going forward.”

But these reforms do not go far enough. In comments to the Mayor and City Council, the Institute for Justice explained the new ordinance’s shortcomings. Under it, vehicle owners must still prove their own innocence. And if those owners happened to be present when the city seized their cars, they can’t claim innocence. The city still refuses to return people’s cars until they pay all the fines and fees the city claims they owe. And the ordinance does nothing to help those already victimized by the impound scheme, including those whose vehicles have been destroyed. But the city did not adopt those recommendations, requiring IJ’s class-action lawsuit to press on.

Institute for Justice Attorney Diana Simpson said, “We are encouraged to see these necessary changes to Chicago’s impound program. But these changes do not address all of the constitutional problems that forced our clients to sue. For instance, Chicagoans must still prove their own innocence, a notion that flips due process on its head. We will continue our suit to vindicate the rights of Chicagoans and make whole those already victimized.”

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