By: Mark Glennon*
If you didn’t see Reason’s article last week about asset forfeiture and impound fees in Chicago, read it. It’s about how the city’s “uniquely punitive” process deprives innocent people of their vehicles for years at a time. Due process is thrown under the bus in a way that will turn your stomach.
But the full picture is worse than covered by the article. Read ProPublica’s story from February about what’s spiking up personal bankruptcies in the city. “In 2007, an estimated 1,000 Chapter 13 bankruptcies included debts to the city, usually for unpaid tickets, with the median amount claimed around $1,500 per case. By last year, the number of cases surpassed 10,000, with the typical debt to the city around $3,900.”
In other words, a range of increasingly excessive fines Chicago imposes, beyond the impound fees Reason wrote about, is driving up personal bankruptcies. A “cash-strapped city employs punitive measures to collect from cash-strapped residents,” wrote ProPublica.
Legal experts say what’s happening in Chicago’s bankruptcy courts is unique. Parking, traffic and vehicle compliance tickets prompt so many bankruptcies the court here leads the nation in Chapter 13 filings, according to ProPublica.
Who are the victims? The poor, especially minorities. Chicago’s leadership incessantly gloats about concern for the underprivileged. In fact, those who can least afford it are getting hammered to pay up for a broke city.
Guilt or innocence doesn’t matter in the case of seizure and impound fees. There’s no “innocent owner” defense. There’s not even a right to have a lawyer present at the administrative hearing. When a car is seized or impounded, the owner’s ability to work is often lost, too.
As a lawyer, it’s long been a mystery to me how courts allow this to go on. Fundamental notions of due process taught to every first year law student mean nothing. It doesn’t help that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a strong supporter of civil asset forfeiture. Our neighbors in Wisconsin this month passed a law requiring a conviction before the government takes your stuff. You’d think that would be the rule across America.
Aside from treating due process as a nicety it can ignore, Chicago has no problem bragging about the health of its central business district even while personal bankruptcies soar.
“It’s a racket Chicago’s been able to maintain this long, and I don’t expect they’ll quietly roll over and quit doing it,” says a lawyer quoted by Reason. “The unfairness of it all is well documented, but it doesn’t seem to be a concern to the folks at the city.”
*Mark Glennon is founder and Executive Editor of Wirepoints.