It happens just about every day in the metro-east: Someone gets pulled over and arrested, and police have the car towed away.
Everyone knows that can get expensive. The defendant has to settle up fines from the courts, and has to pay for the tow and the impound fee to the company holding the car.
But before that can happen, he has to get a receipt from City Hall stating that he’s cleared to get his car back. In some cities, that’s an expensive piece of paper.
Tow redemption fees in the metro-east range from $100 for minor offenses up to $500 or more for more serious offenses such as driving under the influence. The fees are allowed under a statute that says cities can charge a reasonable fee to recoup their expenses on administrative efforts for certain offenses.
So the question becomes… what is reasonable? Edwardsville attorney Brian Polinske has filed lawsuits against six metro-east cities alleging that their fees are not reasonable, and intends to consolidate them into a class-action lawsuit against Collinsville, Edwardsville, Alton, Granite City, O’Fallon and Belleville.
“It’s a way to generate money and hold people’s cars hostage until they pay $500,” Polinske said. “Everyone needs their car, so they just have to pay it.”
While DUI is one of the most expensive and serious offenses subject to the fee, cars can be towed for minor offenses such as driving on a suspended license. Sometimes that affects the fee: In Alton, for example, the fee is subject to a sliding scale from $100 to $500, while in O’Fallon, the fee is $250 or $500. In other cities, such as Edwardsville, it’s a flat $300 fee for everyone.
It can stack up to big money for the cities. In recent years, 200 to 500 cars per year have been subject to the tow redemption fee in each municipality. In the last three fiscal years, Collinsville has received more than $286,000 in tow fees and Belleville $342,000, while Granite City has received more than $244,000, O’Fallon $328,744 and Alton nearly half a million dollars.
Edwardsville’s revenue from the fee is harder to calculate because accurate records were not kept until 2013. In late 2012, then-police chief James Bedell was found to be embezzling funds garnered from the vehicle tow release fees. In total, Bedell stole nearly $140,000 in fee revenue from 2009 to 2012, taking cash and money orders from a department lock box that held the impound fees. Bedell said he stole the money to support his gambling habit, and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.
Since then, Edwardsville tracks each fee separately in computer records, according to city officials. In the past two fiscal years, Edwardsville has brought in nearly $125,000.
Often, the tow fee income is an expected part of the city’s revenue. A line item of $93,640 for impound fees is part of Collinsville’s 2015 city budget. Belleville’s fiscal 2016 budget anticipates $165,000 from vehicle tow release fees, up from $150,00 budgeted the year before, and Granite City has budgeted $75,000.
The lawsuits were filed in December 2011 with dozens of plaintiffs, alleging that the fees are excessive and violate due process of law. Among the plaintiffs was Allan Lewis of Edwardsville, who was arrested on May 20, 2011. The suit alleged that in addition to his court fines, tow and storage fees, he had to pay another $300 fee to the city of Edwardsville for the receipt that allowed him to get his car back — a fee the suit called “unreasonable and excessive.”
Another plaintiff was Rogelio Saladrigas of Mascoutah, who was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol in October 2011 and was sentenced to a $3,000 fine, 100 hours of community service and completion of an alcohol abuse treatment program. Saladrigas joined the lawsuit against O’Fallon regarding the $500 fee he paid to get his car back.
But the suits were dismissed in 2012 by a Madison County judge. They were amended and resubmitted, then dismissed again in October 2013, affirming the cities’ stance that the fees were allowed under existing state law.
Then Polinske appealed to the 5th District Appellate Court in Mount Vernon, which reversed the lower court’s decision in May, sending them back to Madison County. But it’s stalled again, because Collinsville has appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.
In their pleadings, the cities maintain that the man-hours required to process the paperwork and court time for these crimes justify the fees.
“There’s a state statute and case law that allows administrative fees tied in whenever a motor vehicle is impounded,” said Steve Giacoletto, city attorney for Collinsville.
Edwardsville Mayor Hal Patton said it can take up to three hours of a police officer’s time to manage the paperwork and court appearances for a DUI arrest.
“(The fee) covers a portion of our employee time, based on the fact that more than half of these tows are DUI,” Patton said. “These are serious offenses, offenses that we don’t think the general public should be on the hook paying for.”
Edwardsville Police Chief Jay Keeven agrees.
“I believe that we pay enough taxes in our communities in this country,” Keeven said. “I would consider this a user fee. If you don’t want to pay the fee, don’t drive drunk. You’re consuming police time, and if you’re going to consume that time, you should have to pay for it. The taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook to pay for your arrest.”
But Polinske disagrees with that philosophy, both in practicality and as a matter of law. He said the police departments already receive a $500 law enforcement fee assessed against everyone who pleads guilty of a DUI, as well as a portion of the fine assessed by the courts, along with federal and state grants targeted specifically for the costs of DUI enforcement.
But on the point of who should pay for law enforcement, Polinske said it isn’t supposed to be “pay for play.”
“This is not the way the criminal justice system was set up,” Polinske said. “Police are always paid from tax dollars, and it’s been that way throughout our history.”
Alton Mayor Brant Walker said he doesn’t have a problem with the $500 fee for DUI tows. “You have the right to choose not to commit a felony,” Walker said.
Defendants also have the right to appeal the tow fee, under the state statute, and the cities are required to inform people who are paying the fee of that right. The appeal goes to an administrative hearing officer, and Walker said that is an opportunity for defendants to seek relief.
But Polinske said that appeal is “a sham.” He alleged that in his experience as a defense attorney, many times the clerical workers do not inform defendants of their right to an appeal.
“I had two guys come in this week charged with a DUI, and neither one was told he had a right to an appeal,” he said. “It just goes to show that there may be an appeal process, but they’re not giving them the notice.”
If they do appeal, he said, it doesn’t do any good. He said he is not aware of a single case where anyone got their fee returned after appealing to the administrative hearing officer. “(The hearing officer) knows what they have to do to keep that job,” he said.
Polinske is waiting to hear whether the Supreme Court will take the case before proceeding with a request to allow consolidating the lawsuits into one class-action suit. Given that each city collects hundreds of such fees per year, the number of plaintiffs — and the cities’ potential exposure if they lose — would be significant.
If the Supreme Court declines to hear the case, or hears it and affirms the appellate court’s decision, it still doesn’t mean the plaintiffs win. It sends the case back to Madison County to proceed with discovery and further litigation. But until the Supreme Court makes its decision, everything else is on hold.
Patton said if the majority of residents were unhappy with the fees, he’d expect to hear a lot of complaints. So far, he has not received any.
“It’s not a problem that I really see residents coming in and complaining to city officials,” he said. “If it were a problem, I think I would hear from a lot more residents.”