Class action lawsuit accuses Chicago of predatory towing

December 3, 2019

Tyson Fisher

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Truckers are not the only motorists falling victim to predatory towing. A class action lawsuit against the city of Chicago accuses the Windy City of violating state legislation that specifically addresses towing that deprives motorists of due process.

Andrea Santiago, a senior citizen with multiple sclerosis who is confined to a wheelchair, alleges that the city of Chicago towed her car and eventually sold it for scrap metal without giving her due process.

At the heart of the case is Illinois legislation passed in 2005 that addresses predatory towing in Chicago.

“Towing without telling”

According to the complaint, Santiago is a Chicago resident who owned a 1998 GMC Savana 1500 van. Owned since 2006, Santiago’s family regularly parked the van on the side of the street for easy access.

On June 5, 2018, the city placed a sticker on the van’s window. The sticker stated that if the vehicle was not moved in seven days it would be considered abandoned and towed. The lawsuit claims the van was parked legally with a valid city sticker on the windshield. Additionally, the van was visibly equipped with wheelchair lift equipment, as well as a disability license plate.

On June 13, 2018, the van was towed and impounded. The complaint claims that Santiago never received a notice by mail warning her, calling the action “towing without telling.”

The city claims it mailed a post-tow notice of vehicle impoundment on June 15, 2018. Meanwhile, storage fees were accumulating as Santiago’s daughter attempted to retrieve the van.

The lawsuit alleges that the city never mailed an additional notice of impending vehicle disposal. Such notice is required under state statute. The city sold the van to the towing company, United Road Towing, before Santiago’s daughter was able to locate it. That company then sold it for scrap to a salvage yard.

Santiago never received any of the proceeds from the van’s sale, which also is required by state law.

Legislation addressing predatory towing

In 2005, the Illinois legislature amended the state’s vehicle code to address predatory towing. Cities with a population of more than 500,000 people are required to notify motorists that their vehicle has been towed.

Owners have 18 days to claim a vehicle that has been towed before it is disposed of, according to state code. However, that is based on the assumption that during those 18 days “the possessor of the vehicle has sent an additional notice by first class mail to the registered owner,” the statute explains.

In short, Chicago is required to send motorists two notices: one regarding the initial tow and an additional notice warning of disposal.

The amended vehicle code also allows Chicago to establish a program where the vehicle owner “is entitled to any proceeds from the disposition of the vehicle.”

During an Illinois House session in 2005, Rep. Terry Parke expressed the need for legislation addressing predatory towing.

“We have had for years complaints from citizens, both in the city of Chicago and the suburbs, about unscrupulous towing companies that really either set people up or towed them illegally and good citizens have been abused,” Parke said.

Chicago continues predatory towing

In her lawsuit, Santiago’s attorneys accuse the city of Chicago of continuing predatory towing despite legislation passed to prevent it from occurring.

The complaint cites a news story that reported nearly 94,000 vehicles were towed in Chicago in 2017 alone. More than 32,000 of those vehicles remained unclaimed. Eventually, the city sold 24,000 of those unclaimed vehicles to third parties, including United Road Towing.

According to the lawsuit, Chicago never amended the city code to reflect the state’s amended vehicle code from 2005. In fact, the lawsuit claims Chicago did not amend the code until 2016, a decade after the state amended the vehicle code to address predatory towing.

Despite the city’s amended vehicle code, motorists still do not receive the required notice of impending vehicle disposal. Consequently, the city sells the vehicles and keeps the proceeds.

Predatory towing deprives motorists of due process

Santiago’s complaint points out that Chicago’s ordinances only requires the city to provide notice after a vehicle has been towed. By then, towing and storage fees have begun to pile.

Attorneys for plaintiffs claim that this “towing without telling” deprives motorists of due process.

“In short, the city takes vehicles with no warning or opportunity to contest the claim of abandonment prior to the seizure,” the complaint claims. “While the city allegedly sends a notice of impoundment to the owner after it has already been impounded, it fails to send the required additional notice when the city intends on disposing of the vehicle. As a result, thousands of cars are in effect stolen from citizens of Chicago and sold without proper notice and due process.”

In a reply to the city of Chicago’s motion to dismiss, Santiago’s attorneys accuse the city’s tow program of “a long history of mismanagement, apathy, and outright corruption.” They claim a spike in bankruptcy in Chicago was largely the result of motorists filing to get impounded cars released.

The city claims that Santiago received notice via the window sticker. However, Santiago’s attorneys claim that is not sufficient, stating that a notice by mail is required.

Backing up that claim, a response to Chicago’s motion to dismiss points out that courts in the same district, including an appellate court, have ruled that due process requires notice by mail prior to towing a vehicle that is claimed to be abandoned.

As of publication time, the U.S. District Court in Northern Illinois has not yet ruled on Chicago’s motion to dismiss.

Predatory towing and trucking

Although the lawsuit deals mostly with passenger vehicles, it highlights how pervasive the problem is across the board.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has a history of battling predatory towing within the trucking industry. In July, OOIDA sued a towing company in Tennessee for inflating the price of nonconsensual tows.

In May, the Missouri legislature passed a bill backed by OOIDA that would establish a towing task force. Unfortunately, Gov. Mike Parson vetoed the bill.

In Colorado, OOIDA helped create consumer protections against nonconsensual tows. Those rules went into effect in January 2018. The Towing and Recovery Professionals of Colorado attempted to have that protection removed.

Mike Matousek, OOIDA manager of government affairs, has been in the trenches in the fight against predatory towing.

“While the definition of ‘predatory towing’ might vary a bit for cars and trucks, there’s no question commercial motor vehicles are targeted by unscrupulous towing operators,” Matousek told Land Line. “We see it all over the country on a regular basis, which includes predatory booting schemes, legally-questionable drive-away tows, and other forms of nonconsensual towing. The Chicago Police Department appears to be going after some of these crooked operators, but more can and must be done – not only in Chicago, but all across the country.”

Tyson Fisher

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.