Lightfoot proposes sweeping changes to Chicago’s heavy-handed ticketing, towing scheme
The Chicago mayor unveiled plans to reform the city’s controversial system of handling vehicle violations, which has buried thousands of low-income residents in debt, taken their cars and licenses.
A controversial system that has cost tens of thousands of low-income Chicagoans their driver’s licenses – and their cars – could soon begin to reverse.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on July 23 presented the City Council with plans to reform the city’s nonmoving vehicle violations system, which has driven thousands of residents into personal bankruptcy.
Chicago’s enforcement of minor vehicle violations has earned notoriety for trapping drivers in a cycle of ever-mounting tickets. For residents living on a modest income, this has often led to the suspension of driver’s licenses or the confiscation of their vehicles. Left without a reliable mode of transportation, the economic consequences for residents stuck in ticket debt can be dire.
Specific reforms Lightfoot proposed include:
- Eliminating driver’s license suspensions for nonmoving vehicle violations.
- Capping late fees for vehicle sticker renewal at $250; failure to renew city stickers before expiration currently doubles the $200 fee to $400.
- Reviving the 15-day grace period for vehicle sticker renewal after expiration.
- Offering six-month payment plans to all ticketed drivers, with the option of lower fees and a longer timeframe for low-income residents.
- Allowing drivers to request a 24-hour extension to pay, or start a payment plan for, fines for “booted” vehicles.
“Booting,” the practice of immobilizing a vehicle by attaching a mechanical device to one of its wheels, can occur in Chicago after just two outstanding tickets. Those two infractions could be as benign as a $60 parking ticket and a $200 fine for a missing city sticker. It costs an additional $100 to remove the “boot.”
For poor residents unable to make those payments immediately, the city can quickly seize the owner’s vehicle – inviting even more fees for towing and storage.
Driven into debt
A joint investigation by ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ this year identified nearly 50,000 instances since 2011 in which the city seized – and then sold – Chicagoans’ cars to a private towing company, a practice known in the city as “tow-and-sell.”
The city and its private towing contractor bank millions off the tow-and-sell scheme, while those forced to forfeit their vehicles accumulate debt and struggle to find ways to work or to pick up their children from school. Residents lose their cars and still face the full ticket debt, because the city keeps the money from seized car sales and applies none of it to the residents’ rising ticket debts.
The investigation found the “vast majority” of cars swept through the city’s tow-and-sell cycle came from the city’s low-income areas. Those areas have also seen a massive spike in filings for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, often the last resort for residents desperate to retrieve their impounded cars or suspended driver’s licenses.
Chicago’s tow-and-sell penalties increased markedly after former Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011. Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza – former city clerk and former mayoral candidate – ramped up enforcement against city sticker “scofflaws” in 2014.
Turning the corner
In a press statement, the mayor acknowledged Cook County has been “given the unfortunate title of nationwide leader in Chapter 13 bankruptcies,” with two-thirds of those bankruptcies occurring in Chicago.
In December 2018, Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia launched a task force to explore possible reforms to the city’s harsh ticketing enforcement. The issue caused all 14 candidates in the 2019 Chicago mayoral race to pledge to reform the system.
Some of the reforms included in the mayor’s set of proposals – such as discontinuing license suspensions for minor citations – are bolder than the list of recommendations in the task force’s report issued in May.
Lightfoot also lent support for similar reforms floated at the state level. In February, state Sen. Omar Aquino, D-Chicago, introduced Senate Bill 1786, known as the License to Work Act. The bill would end license suspensions as a penalty for parking ticket debt statewide.
SB 1786 passed the Illinois Senate in March, and despite earning bipartisan support from 51 sponsors, stalled in the Illinois House. The bill is currently in the House Rules Committee but may be revived next session thanks to Lightfoot’s momentum.
About 55,000 Illinois driver’s licenses are currently suspended because of unpaid tickets, according to the Illinois Secretary of State’s office.
For years, Chicago’s poor fiscal health has driven the cash-strapped city to squeeze more revenue out of minor civil infractions. The overbearing enforcement has put the most vulnerable Chicagoans’ livelihoods in jeopardy, while failing to rescue city finances.
The City Council should advance Lightfoot’s proposed reforms. But they should not stop there.
Unless the new mayor leads Chicago on a path toward serious pension and labor reform, the city will not find relief from the structural problems that perpetuate its appetite for tax and fee hikes.