Metro-East News

Tow redemption fee lawsuits may go to trial in Madison County

News-Democrat

A decision by the Illinois Supreme Court paves the way for a class-action suit against multiple metro-east cities that have been charging administrative towing fees, some of them reaching $500 or more.

Earlier this year, Edwardsville attorney Brian Polinske filed individual lawsuits against six metro-east cities alleging that they are requiring unreasonable fees from people whose cars are towed after an arrest. Suits were filed against O’Fallon and Fairview Heights in St. Clair County and against Alton, Collinsville, Edwardsville and Granite City in Madison County.

But after multiple legal challenges, those suits may now be going forward. Recently, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling, sending the suits back to Madison County for trial.

When a defendant is arrested — sometimes for minor infractions like driving on a revoked license, other times for more serious violations such as driving under the influence — the car is often towed away. In addition to the court fines and fees, the defendant must pay for the tow, and for the impound fee charged for storing the car.

But before that can happen, he or she 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 receipt. These so-called tow redemption fees in the metro-east range from $100 for minor offenses up to $500 or more for more serious offenses.

They are not going to be able to justify their costs. The statute reads ‘reasonable fee.’ Presumably that means they can’t overbill.”

Edwardsville attorney Bill Polinske

The statute says that cities may charge a reasonable fee to recoup their administrative expenses. But Polinske maintains that $500 is not a reasonable fee for issuing a receipt.

“They are not going to be able to justify their costs,” Polinske said. “The statute reads ‘reasonable fee.’ Presumably that means they can’t overbill.”

The lawsuits were filed in December 2011 with multiple 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.

Another plaintiff, Rogelio Saladrigas of Mascoutah, 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 had to pay to get his car back.

The lawsuits were dismissed in 2012, amended and resubmitted, then dismissed again in October 2013. Polinske appealed to the 5th District Appellate Court in Mount Vernon, which reversed the lower court’s decision and sent the suits back to Madison County.

Collinsville appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. But on Sept. 30, the high court declined to hear the case. That effectively affirms the appellate court decision.

Steve Giacoletto, attorney for Collinsville, said they intend to continue defending the city as they did before, and declined further comment.

Polinske said eventually he will file to combine the suits into one class-action suit. First, he said, they will go forward with discovery motions. He did not anticipate quick settlements. “We’re going to get ready for trial,” he said.

$165,000Amount Belleville expects to collect next year in tow redemption fees

In the last three fiscal years, the cities in question have received anywhere from $250,000 to half a million dollars in tow reception fees. In Edwardsville, accurate records were not kept until 2013. In late 2012, then-police chief James Bedell was found to be embezzling money garnered from the vehicle tow release fees. Often paid in cash, Bedell stole nearly $140,000 over three years to support a gambling habit and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.

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.

In their pleadings, the cities maintained that the man-hours required to process the paperwork for these crimes justify the fees. Earlier Edwardsville Police Chief Jay Keeven said he considers is a “user fee.”

“If you don’t want to pay the fee, don’t drive drunk,” he said.

Alton Mayor Brant Walker agreed. “You have the right to choose not to commit a felony,” Walker said.

But Polinske said the cities already receive a $500 law enforcement fee paid by everyone who pleads guilty to DUI, plus federal and state grants for DUI enforcement costs.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

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