Institute for Justice · September 22, 2021

Wilmington, Del.—Wilmington contracts out its municipal impound system to private towing companies and funds the whole system by letting these companies wrongfully take and keep people’s cars. The city pays these companies nothing for their services, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The price of Wilmington’s “cost-free” impound services falls squarely on vehicle owners in Wilmington, who are at risk of losing their cars to an impound system woefully deficient of due process that profits off scrapping the cars they tow. Two victims of Wilmington’s tow-and-impound racket, Ameera Shaheed and Earl Dickerson, represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), today filed a lawsuit seeking to bring an end to Wilmington’s unconstitutional impound system.

The lawsuit challenges Wilmington’s impound system in several ways: First, the lawsuit challenges the city’s program on the grounds that the city and its contractors take cars that are worth more than the amount of debt at issue, but then fail to return any surplus value to the owner (or even to credit the value of the car toward the ticket debt). In other words, the city can’t keep a $4,000 car over a $400 debt. Next, the lawsuit challenges the lack of procedural protections provided by the city’s program. The city violates the Fourth Amendment by seizing cars without a warrant and the city violates due process by failing to provide any pre- or post-seizure hearing. Finally, the lawsuit challenges the loss of a car as an excessive fine, as keeping someone’s car over an alleged parking violation is grossly disproportionate.

“The Constitution requires that any penalty imposed by the government be proportional to the crime. The loss of one’s car for ticket debt is unconstitutional,” said IJ Attorney Will Aronin. “People depend on their cars to work, to visit family, and for all parts of their lives. Nobody should lose their car just because they can’t afford to pay a parking ticket.”

Ameera Shaheed’s ordeal in Wilmington’s outsourced impound system should trouble anybody who drives or will drive through Wilmington. The city ticketed her legally parked car six times in nine days. While her appeal of the wrongly-issued tickets was pending, the city towed her car and demanded payment in full. When Ameera, a disabled grandmother of three, could not afford to pay $320 in tickets within 30 days, First State Towing scrapped her car. Though Ameera’s lost car was worth over $4,000, Wilmington still demands payment and has actually increased what she owes with added penalties to $580.

“When they took my vehicle, it hindered me from being able to get around. I have a bad back. I can’t do a lot of walking,” Ameera said. “I needed that vehicle. It was my pride and joy.”

Unfortunately, Ameera is not the only one to wrongly lose their car to Wilmington’s impound system. Earl Dickerson, a retired Wilmington grandfather, could not afford to drive much during the pandemic and left his car legally parked on his street. Wilmington ticketed his car and demanded he move it within seven days. Earl, dealing with a death in the family, missed the deadline and his car was towed. He paid the $60 ticket he was issued in full.

That should have been the end of Earl’s involvement in Wilmington’s impound system, but the towing company then demanded an additional $910 in “storage fees” before releasing his car. Earl could not afford to pay the ransom, so the towing company scrapped his car and kept the full value for themselves.

“It was my only means of transportation,” Earl said. “And without that, I felt almost helpless.”

“Wilmington is taking cars without any kind of procedural protections, holding them for ransom, and then refusing even to credit the value of the car toward the supposed ticket debt,” said IJ Senior Attorney Rob Johnson. “No private debt collector could ever get away with that. The city doesn’t get extra leeway to take private property just because it’s the government. To the contrary, we should be holding the government to a higher standard.”

The Institute for Justice, which litigates property rights cases across the country, regularly challenges unconstitutional fines and fees. In 2019, IJ won a victory before the United States Supreme Court, in which the Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive fines applies to state governments, not just the federal government.