Tow redemption fees charged by metro-east cities are now under scrutiny in proposed legislation in the Illinois Legislature as well as pending lawsuits.
When a driver is cited and a car impounded, the defendant must settle up fines with the courts, must 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 he’s cleared to get the car back.
In some cities, the fee to issue that receipt can be as high as $500, or even higher. Some cities set their fee according to the seriousness of the offense: from $100 for minor offenses to $500 or more for driving under the influence or similar charges.
Edwardsville attorney Brian Polinske has filed lawsuits against seven metro-east cities alleging that the fees charged in Collinsville, Edwardsville, Alton, Fairview Heights, Granite City, O’Fallon and Belleville are not reasonable. The suits were filed in December 2011 with dozens of plaintiffs.
But they were dismissed out of Madison County Court in 2012. The suits were amended and resubmitted, then dismissed again in 2013. Polinske appealed to the 5th District Appellate Court in Mount Vernon, which reversed the lower court’s decision in 2015, sending the cases back to Madison County.
The city of Collinsville appealed that decision to the Illinois Supreme Court, and all the other cases were on hold awaiting that decision. However, the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, which sends it back to Madison County.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, has proposed two bills to restrict the administrative fees charged by cities:
• Senate Bill 2261 would limit the administrative fee for impounding vehicles from exceeding the actual cost of the service provided. It also prevents an illegally parked car from being impounded unless it has been abandoned for more than 48 hours, and exempts cars left behind in an emergency.
• Senate Bill 2265 requires that daily storage fees for impounded vehicles cannot accrue for at least five days after a car is towed. It also requires that a notice of seizure must be sent by mail, and allows a lease holder to take possession of an impounded vehicle.
Haine called the fees charged by some local governments “outrageous.”
“Having a car break down on the side of the road or having to abandon a vehicle because of unforeseen circumstances is already a heavy enough burden to bear,” Haine said. “Excessive impound fees on top of that is simply unreasonable.”
Much of Haine’s bill is aimed at assisting motorists who break down, rather than those under arrest; it includes provisions making it a felony for a tow truck to stop at the scene of an accident to solicit business rather than having been summoned by a driver or law enforcement, for example. In one case, he said, a woman’s car was stuck in a snowbank, and when she came back the next day, it had been towed away. The administrative fee in addition to the cost of the tow and the impound fee exceeded the value of the car, Haine said.
“There has to be a balance between public safety and clearing the roadways,” Haine said. “Poor people can’t pay $1,300 to get back a car worth $1,000.”
Having a car break down on the side of the road or having to abandon a vehicle because of unforeseen circumstances is already a heavy enough burden to bear. Excessive impound fees on top of that is simply unreasonable.
State Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton
Polinske said the wording of the legislation as it was originally proposed wouldn’t change the crux of his suits much.
“The Supreme Court has already given us guidance on what fees can be charged,” he said. “(The bills) are just using different words to restate what the Supreme Court has already given us as legal instruction.”
Polinske said the arguments usually brought to justify the fees are that administering DUIs and other traffic offenses are that it takes time for police officers to do the paperwork. But Polinske said the police departments already receive a “law enforcement assessment” fee on every DUI conviction in the amount of $500, which means they are already compensated for the police officer’s time. He said he is currently in the discovery process of the suits, which so far indicates that their expenses are “far less than $500.”
To charge more money on top of that is “pure excess,” he said. Clerks are charging $500 or more just to write out a slip of paper, he said.
Legislation might address the problem, Polinske said, by setting a firm dollar amount as the cap on what cities can charge. “If it’s $30, it’s $30,” he said. “Until you put a number on it, it’s going to be all over the place.”
Since then, an amendment has added the language, “shall not exceed $50 or the actual cost of services provided, whichever is greater,” to SB2261.
“I want a $50 cap,” Haine said. “Unless they can show some actual extraordinary cost, and I don’t know how they’d do that ... there isn’t any actual cost other than minimal paperwork.”
The lawsuits are still in the discovery phase, but so far the number of plaintiffs could be in the thousands. The cities have received anywhere from $250,000 to half a million dollars per year in tow redemption fees over the last few years. Polinske said eventually he will seek certification as a class action suit, once discovery is complete.
“This is not what was intended by giving authority to cities and villages to tow. They’re going to have to find another way to make a living,” Haine said. “These are average people, not wealthy people. ... It’s not right.”
Meanwhile, the legislation has passed the Senate Transportation Committee and is headed to the floor. However, Haine said he anticipates further amendments added to the bill later on addressing tow fraud, which is apparently an increasing problem in the Chicago area.