by Ed Lyon
Chicago may be Frank Sinatra’s kind of town, but not for many of the city’s poorer citizens. They would probably move, if only they did not owe the city so much money and either were, or are now, too poor to do so.
Chicago has a decades-long history of financial irresponsibility. Its 2007 budget deficit was $94 million. When Rahm Emanuel became mayor in 2011, it had grown to a whopping $650 million, as well as many more billions of dollars in pension debt that was not funded.
Shortly after assuming office, Emanuel announced: “Moving forward there will be no more free rides, debt scofflaws will be found and they will pay what they owe the City,” when he introduced the first city budget under his reign. It would tragically become the city’s poorer citizens who, if they were not already in debt to Chicago, soon would be.
Fees were increased for trash collection, water, sewage, mandatory auto stickers, minor city taxes and fines—even one for allowing weeds to grow too tall in a yard, permits and garage parking, cigarette taxes, cable TV fees, and many, many more.
Nuisance fines, such as for possessing prohibited drugs in a vehicle, shot from $500 to $2,000, $3,000 if within 500 feet of a school.
In the 12-month period ending in April 2018, Chicago had levied $15,000 in impound fines just for playing music too loudly in cars.
Various traffic violations, fines, and impound fees resulted in a novel, punitive impound system. As this scheme blossomed, citizens’ debt to the city led to 10,000 Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings to include city debt in 2017. For the one-year period ending in April 2018, a three-tier impound fine scheme netted Chicago $10,731,100 for suspended/revoked licenses, $2,656,450 for unlawful drug possession in a car, and $1,965,300 for driving while intoxicated.
Spencer Byrd, a self-employed carpenter and auto mechanic, resided in Harvey, a Chicago suburb, where 35 percent of the residents eke out livings below the poverty line. He did on-site auto repairs, sometimes giving customers rides to work when he could not do an on-site repair.
On June 21, 2016, Byrd was stopped by a Chicago police officer on the pretext of a broken turn signal while giving a customer a ride. The stop’s pretext was soon forgotten when the two men were searched and Byrd’s passenger was found to have a bag of heroin in his pocket. Taken into custody for questioning, Byrd was soon released. And, although the passenger’s possession charges would eventually be dropped because no probable cause existed for the stop, Byrd’s problems had only just begun.
When released, Byrd was told his 1996 Cadillac had been impounded under the possession (second) tier of Chicago’s impound scheme. This amounted to a $2,000 fine for a car worth $1,600. However, the carpentry and auto repair tools he made his living with, worth $3,500, were locked in the car’s trunk, and impound authorities would not release them to Byrd. He had joined the growing ranks of citizens like one man whose car had accrued $16,000 in impound fees for the $2,000 fine of the scheme’s second tier before the case’s final adjudication.
Byrd filed a property claim for his car with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, which informed him civil forfeiture proceedings had been filed for the car. Citing family hardship and children to support, a circuit court judge ordered Chicago to release the car after Byrd paid a $30 deposit and provided proof of insurance. The government objected, which was needless because Chicago refused to obey the judge’s release order until Byrd paid the second-tier fine and accrued storage fees.
The Illinois constitution added a home rule amendment by voters in 1971. A city of more than 25,000 may impose laws, taxes, and fines of its own, independent of state oversight and authority. A state court order has absolutely no effect on Byrd’s situation and the many like it.
He now had to battle Cook County and Chicago’s Administrative Hearing Department. There is no right to legal representation in administrative proceedings, so fighting alone, Byrd lost every round to a merciless, cash-strapped, money-grubbing city until a state judge found him to be an innocent owner and ordered the impound and storage fees cut to $250.
However, Chicago remained adamant about the $2,000 second-tier fine and would not release the car. On February 9, 2018, he received notice that his car was to be sold for scrap metal.
The end result of Chicago’s financial tyranny against some of its most vulnerable citizens has been to make their already precarious financial situation even worse.
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