Chicago-area municipalities are turning traffic stops into big money, the Chicago Tribune reports. The newspaper found more than 100 area communities that have created laws to seize vehicles as punishment for a growing list of offenses, from drunken driving to loud radios to littering. Car owners must then pay “administrative” fees to get their vehicles back, even if the owners had nothing to do with the crime. If the owners don’t pay – and can’t convince municipal officials that the tow was unfair – their vehicles are taken away for good.
The concept isn’t new: Chicago and some suburbs started doing it in the 1990s for a few crimes. But the laws are now spreading quickly. Citing cash woes and frustration over repeat offenders, at least 24 communities launched new seizure programs in the last year. Area impounds now top 53,000 vehicles a year, netting $24 million in fees. Local leaders say the fines, often $500 or more, pay for police officers’ time. The Tribune found that the fees are usually much higher than what it actually costs to make an arrest and coordinate the tow. Defense lawyers and other critics say impounds have become a shakedown of mostly low-income drivers, a system that punishes people before they’re found guilty – if they’re even charged with a crime. “I would call it an alarming trend,” said attorney Robert Loeb, past chairman of the state bar association’s criminal justice section. “They’re doing it for the revenue. That’s what’s motivating it.”