Chicago ‘tow-and-sell’ operation flips 50K cars, buries drivers in debt
Chicago has seized and sold nearly 50,000 impounded vehicles since 2011, hitching drivers to mounting debts, a recent investigation found. The city’s ticketing laws disproportionately harm low-income residents.
Ticketed vehicles in Chicago find their way to the impound yard with surprising frequency, a recent investigation found. And the inability to cover a host of fines and fees often costs residents their cars.
Analyzing thousands of towing records, WBEZ identified nearly 50,000 instances since 2011 in which the city seized – and then sold – residents’ personal vehicles.
This practice of “tow-and-sell” can occur when a driver racks up unpaid tickets and related fines and fees, prompting the city to confiscate the driver’s vehicle. Those fines can pile up quickly: As few as two outstanding traffic citations – such as a $60 parking ticket or a $200 fine for a missing city sticker – can be enough for the city to “boot” an owner’s car.
If owners fail to pay a $100 boot removal fee within 24 hours, the city has the vehicle towed – adding a $150 towing fee. Once impounded, motorists incur daily storage fees on top of earlier citations and late fees. In as little as three weeks, the city can assume the authority to sell the vehicle, usually at scrap price, to a private towing company.
What’s worse, none of the funds collected from those sales go toward paying down the car owners’ ticket debts. As WBEZ points out, the city’s website states that the “involuntary surrender of your vehicle to the City does not waive or decrease any outstanding debt you owe the City.”
Where does the money go? According to the report, the city and its towing contractor have banked millions off the city’s tow-and-sell operation. Those forced to permanently forfeit their vehicle, meanwhile, continue accumulating debt while scrambling to find ways to get to work or drop their children at school.
Paying down a ticket after racking up a string of late fees can be tough for low-income residents. The combined cost of tickets, fees and punitive fines leave drivers thousands of dollars in debt after losing their vehicle to the city. WBEZ found the “vast majority” of cars swept through the city’s tow-and-sell cycle came from the city’s low-income areas.
A 2017 analysis by ProPublica found the rate of Chapter 13 filings in predominately black areas of Chicago had doubled since 2009. That came following an earlier investigation by the Chicago Tribune which found the city’s red-light camera ticket revenue tripled between 2006 and 2013, strongly suggesting a correlation between red-light camera tickets and the sharp rise in Chapter 13 filings.
The Chicago Jobs Council, a nonprofit advocacy organization, argues that the city’s aggressive debt-collection practices restrict employment opportunities for those who most need them. Without reliable transportation, disadvantaged Chicagoans are unable to pursue job prospects.
If Chicago’s tow-and-sell penalty seems excessive, so too is its classification of ticket debt delinquency. Chicago categorizes those with outstanding ticket payments as “scofflaws,” an archaic term used to describe criminals during the Prohibition era, WBEZ points out. Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza – former city clerk and current mayoral candidate – ramped up enforcement against vehicle sticker “scofflaws” in 2014.
Unfortunately, the operation hasn’t appeared to slow down: In 2017, Chicago booted 67,000 vehicles for unpaid tickets, impounded 20,000 of them and eventually sold 8,000.
A Cook County resident is currently challenging the city’s ticketing practices with a class-action lawsuit filed in July 2018. The suit alleges the city has issued multiple tickets to the same vehicles on the same day, a violation of city code. A second plaintiff sued the city over the program in November 2018.
Chicago’s tow-and-sell penalties increased markedly after Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011. Emanuel hiked a number of fines and expanded the city’s controversial red-light camera program, according to WBEZ.
Come March, a new administration will inhabit City Hall. Emanuel’s successor should reconsider the city’s heavy-handed approach toward debt collections and how it inordinately hurts low income residents trying to find or keep jobs.