Cities tow cars for many reasons. They are often towed when doubled parked or left in front of a fire hydrant. If there are too many parking tickets, cities will often boot first, and if the driver does not pay the tickets in a certain amount of time, the boot comes off, and the vehicle is confiscated usually by private companies contracted by the city. If owners don’t pick up their cars and pay the tow charge and the fines, then it is sold within a certain period—often for scrap since there is no clean title.
If this has ever happened to you, it might just be an ugly inconvenience, but for many, it becomes a downward spiral that is hard to escape.
WBEZ-Chicago recently did an investigation to uncover what happens to cars after they are towed. Over three years, WBEZ examined hundreds of thousands of records and documents obtained through more than 100 public record requests from a number of city departments that are responsible for towing vehicles. To better understand the scope of Chicago’s confiscation program, reporters examined every impounded vehicle incident that occurred in 2017.
One surprising fact that they uncovered: One out of every four cars impounded never made it back to its owner. A total of 93,857 vehicles were seized by the city of Chicago in 2017, and nearly 24,000 of them were sold for scrap bringing in less than $200 each. This was an average of about 66 cars per day.
Hazard towing (cars parked on the wrong side of the street in winter, in front of alleyways or fire hydrants) and abandoned cars accounted for about one third of impounded vehicles. In 2017, Chicago also sold more than 8,000 cars taken from owners who owed money to the city for tickets. None of the proceeds of the cars sold went to help owners pay off the debt accrued from tickets, booting or towing.
Advocates say vehicle seizures affect low-income car owners the most. Eric Halvorson of the Chicago Jobs Council stated, “Taking away people’s transportation is a job-killer.” Many Chicago-area motorists have been given multiple tickets for not having the city’s yearly sticker placed on their vehicle. The fines become too expensive, and as both ProPublica activists pointed out earlier this year in a different report, this has caused many motorists in the city to file for bankruptcy.
Another towing program that Chicago has implemented is called the Vehicle Impoundment Program or VIP. Officials claim that VIP is not tied to the police department’s civil asset forfeiture program. Funny, VIP seems like another civil asset forfeiture program that was created to skirt issues involved with the police confiscation program. Drivers automatically have their cars towed if they are used in the commission of certain offenses including driving under the influence, driving on a suspended license, littering, playing loud music, solicitation, and the possession or use of illegal fireworks.
Most VIP impoundments are due to license suspension likely from ticket debt. In 2017, 8,295 vehicles seized under VIP were sold. Suspended licenses were involved in nearly 76 percent of the cases. Many such tows occur on Chicago’s West and South sides. Trust between residents and officers enforcing the tows has greatly disintegrated. In April 2018, Reason.com accused the city of Chicago of trying to pay down its debt by impounding innocent peoples’ cars. Back in 2016, the NMA wrote about Chicago’s predatory tow practices right after the city council approved its Towing Bill of Rights.
In late April 2019 three motorists and the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit to end the city’s impound racket. The suit asks for the return of all impounded cars to their owners and also have the city reimburse owner’s whose vehicles were destroyed while impounded. Institute for Justice attorney Diana Simpson said, “Chicago holds all impounded cars as ransom until an owner pays all fines and fees. This unjust process violates both the Illinois Constitution and the US Constitution.”
In Florida, a bill moving through the state legislature would gut the state’s current predatory towing law which provides protections for vehicle owners. Lawmakers want to make it harder for motorists to obtain retribution against towing companies that have hauled cars and trucks away illegally. Also under the bill, victims would have a more difficult time suing tow-truck companies for seizing and subsequently damaging their cars. According to the Miami New Times newspaper, predatory towing is more prevalent in the tourist areas of Miami Beach and South Beach. The New Times has reported that for decades, towing companies have raked in millions by tricking drivers into parking illegally and then hauling away their cars. Senate Bill 1792 attempts to do away with the following language in current law:
“When a person improperly causes a vehicle or vessel to be removed, such person shall be liable to the owner or lessee of the vehicle or vessel for the cost of removal, transportation, and storage; any damages resulting from the removal, transportation, or storage of the vehicle or vessel; attorney’s fees; and court costs.”
For motorists, predatory towing is not just an inconvenience; it can irreparably harm the daily lives of families who have been caught up in a revenue scheme perpetrated by localities and the towing companies hired to do the dirty work.