'Monumental Step In Our Work To Right The Wrongs Of The Past': Mayor Introduces Reform Package For City's Vehicle Impoundment Program

Mayor Lightfoot, the Chicago Police Department and community leaders announced Monday a new working group designed to review and revise the CPD’s use of force policies.
Photo credit City of Chicago
By WBBM Newsradio 780 AM & 105.9 FM

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants to overhaul the city’s vehicle impoundment program, including setting limits on storage fees.

The proposed ordinance, introduced at Wednesday's City Council meeting, would overhaul the city's vehicle impoundment program, building on the Mayor's comprehensive effort to address regressive fines and fees that have caused debt burden for far too many low-income residents. 

Under this new reform package, the city is providing a pathway for residents to pay their debt by reducing fines, ending impoundment for non-driving related offenses, adding legal defenses for innocent vehicle owners, and capping storage fees, which in some cases could increase to tens of thousands of dollars for low-income residents who may not otherwise be able to retrieve their car.

In some cases, storage fees increase to tens of thousands of dollars when someone can not afford to retrieve their car, city officials said.

“It is critical that we take this step to help residents that for far too long have suffered at a disproportional impact from an outdated program that too frequently resulted in thousands of dollars in fines and loss of personal property,” said Mayor Lightfoot. “Today marks another monumental step in our work to right the wrongs of the past and offer assistance to residents that need it the most, but while we take this step today, we also realize that there is still work to be done and will remain diligent in our approach to build a fairer, more equitable Chicago.”

In 2011, the city doubled nearly all fines for the vehicle impoundment program, in an effort to generate $14 million in revenue. However, revenue for the vehicle impoundment program actually decreased, going from $15.9 million in 2010 to $14.9 million in 2019.

Many of the vehicles that have not been redeemed are cars owned by individuals who don’t have the ability to pay increased fines as well as tens of thousands of dollars in storage and other costs. Most vehicles that have been held for extended periods have accrued tens of thousands of dollars in storage fees, and the city does not currently have a limit on storage fees that can be charged.

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The ordinance proposed by the Lightfoot Administration includes provisions to address some of these most regressive parts of the impoundment program, including reducing fines and capping storage fess; ending the practice of charging storage fees when individuals are unable to redeem their cars that are in possession of the Chicago Police Department during an investigation; ending the practice of impoundment for many non-driving and non-public safety related offenses, such as possession of fireworks, possessing spraypaint or loud music; adding legal defenses, such as an “innocent owner” defense to allow individuals to redeem their car when their cars are used without their knowledge, or when they prove that their car never should have been impounded in the first place; and, crediting individuals nearly $1,000 towards the cost of their storage fees when their car is disposed.

“The evidence is clear: when cities rely on police to generate revenue through fines and fees, it's a lose-lose situation for both residents and their local government," said Priya Sarathy Jones, National Policy and Campaigns Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, in a statement. "This is an important step to improve Chicago's economy and to roll back policies that result in unnecessary encounters between police and residents."

The City’s former, historically regressive fines and fees system, resulted in Cook County being the nationwide leader in Chapter 13 bankruptcies, with roughly two-thirds of the bankruptcies including vehicle debt to the City of Chicago. Over the first year of her administration, Mayor Lightfoot has made Chicago one of the largest cities in the nation to comprehensively tackle fines and fees reforms.

Last year, the Chicago City Council approved an initial fines and fees reform package, the City’s first step to ending the harmful enforcement practices that have historically impacted financially challenged communities at disproportionate levels.

"This ordinance is another step in reforming an extremely complex system that has plagued our most vulnerable communities for decades," said Clerk Valencia. "I commend Mayor Lightfoot on her efforts to take swift action on this issue. There is still a lot of work to be done, but I'm hopeful and thankful for the momentum we have for fines and fees reform."

Chicago has already provided critical relief to many residents by implementing new practices which include: eliminating City sticker ticket debt for those who can leastafford it; reduction of excessive late fees on the City Sticker program; elimination of license suspensions for non-driving violations; launch of a series of new payment plans that expand the options for paying off debt; and new pathways to compliance to help residents who are eligible avoid any number of the devastating consequences of onerous city debt –including water shut offs, tows and impoundment, and more.