How Chicago targets innocent people’s money to pay down city debt
On June 21, 2016, Chicago police pulled Spencer Byrd over for a broken turn signal. Byrd says his signal wasn’t broken, but that detail would soon be the least of his worries. Ever since, Byrd has been trapped in one of the city’s most confusing bureaucratic mazes, deprived of his car and his ability to work. He now owes the city thousands of dollars for the pleasure.
Byrd, 50, lives in Harvey, Illinois, a corrupt, crime-ridden town south of Chicago where more than 35% of the populace lives below the poverty line. He’s a carpenter by trade, but until the traffic stop, he had a side gig as an auto mechanic. Byrd says he’s been fixing cars “ever since I was 16 years old and blew my first motor.” Sometimes he did service calls and would give clients rides when he couldn’t repair their cars on the spot.
On this early summer night, Byrd was giving a client, a man he says he had never met before, a ride in his Cadillac DeVille. Police pulled both of them out of the car and searched them. Byrd was clean, but in his passenger’s pocket was a bag of heroin the size of a tennis ball.
The two were hauled off to the precinct house. Police released Byrd after a short stint in an interrogation room without charging him with a crime. But when Byrd went to retrieve his car, he found out the Chicago Police Department had seized and impounded it.
Byrd had run afoul of Chicago’s aggressive vehicle impound program, which seizes cars and fines owners thousands of dollars for dozens of different offenses. The program impounds cars when the owner beats a criminal case or isn’t charged with a crime in the first place. It impounds cars even when the owner isn’t even driving, like when a child is borrowing a parent’s car.
In total, Chicago fined motorists more than $17 million between March 2017 and March of this year for 31 different types of offenses, ranging from DUI to having illegal fireworks in a car to playing music too loud, according to data from the Chicago Administrative Hearings Department. About $10 million of those fines were for driving on a suspended license, and more than $3 million were for drug offenses like the one that resulted in the impoundment of Byrd’s car. (See and download the data here.)
The city says it is simply enforcing nuisance laws and cracking down on scofflaws. But community activists and civil liberties groups say the laws are predatory, burying guilty and innocent owners alike in debt, regardless of their ability to pay or the effect losing a vehicle will have on their lives.
“There’s plenty of reason to be concerned that there’s injustice being done to people who are mostly poor, people who aren’t in a position to fight back,” says Ben Ruddell, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois. “The city has been perpetuating an exploitative system, charging exorbitant fees in a way that it knows is likely to make it so folks never get their cars out of impoundment.”
Byrd calls his car his “livelihood,” and he has been fighting for close to two years now to recover it. He says he has $3,500-worth of tools locked in the trunk, and he can’t retrieve them. In turn, the vast machinery of government has been working against him, adamant in its demand for his nonexistent money or his car.
The battle between Byrd and the governments of Cook County and the municipality of Chicago over his 1996 Cadillac Fleetwood DeVille, valued at $1,600, is a tangled story involving the drug war, the controversial practice of civil asset forfeiture, ailing city budgets, and the rapacious use of fines and fees to generate city revenue. It’s a story of how bureaucracy is used to grind down people by distributing their misery among as many public offices as possible.
“I know I’m not the only person who’s been done like this,” Byrd says. “I’m the only person that’s speaking out. This is really just a money game. The city’s cash-strapped, and they’re utilizing anything they can to get funds”…