Case dismissed: They towed my car and now they’re threatening me

by Christopher Elliott on August 31, 2011


Clare Koebert was looking forward to seeing the sights in Chicago last summer. She’d rented a car with her husband and made the 12-hour drive from the Philadelphia suburbs.

Instead, she got an unwanted lesson in Chicago’s infamous bureaucracy — and, she says, in its unfair judicial system.

While she was in town, her car was towed. The city says she parked in a handicapped spot. She and her husband insist they didn’t.

It all happened near Millennium Park on a Sunday in July. They paid $8.50 for two hours of parking.

As we were about the make our way to Millennium Park, the car that was parked just in front of us left.

My husband, knowing and respecting my super-accurate nature, asked if he should move the car up a space, just to be sure that we were safely out of the handicapped zone.

Well, even though I was in vacation mode, I re-checked our rental car’s position relative to the handicapped spot borders and confirmed, again, that we were legally parked, and not within so much as an inch of the handicapped spot.

But when they returned from the park, their car was gone. It had been towed away.

THe Koeberts retrieved their vehicle and paid a $160 fine. After contacting multiple people within the city, they were granted a hearing by phone to determine if the tow was, in fact, correct. Chicago takes photos of parking violations, so they were confident the case would go their way.

Not so.

Basically, it was the city representative’s word against ours, and the judge ruled against us.

If the City had only ticketed, and not just towed the car, we would have simply photographed our legally-parked car and, given this evidence, the ticket would have been dismissed, but the city towed away our evidence.

This didn’t sound right to me. If the city takes photos of parking violations, it should simply share the picture with Koebert and then she could see that she was either right (or wrong).

It gets worse. A few months later, the couple received an additional $200 fine from the City of Chicago Department of Revenue. The reason for the delay? They’d rented the car, and it took some time for the fine to be passed along to them.

But why pay a fine for something they didn’t do? They appealed, but their requests to see the evidence were stonewalled. Finally, they received another fine. Chicago now wanted $305 — the $200 original fine plus $105 in extra fees. If they wanted to appeal, they would have to pay a fee, too.

The city was threatening an administrative judgment, which could include garnishment of wages of filing a lien against their property, “boot eligibility,” impounding their vehicle or driver’s license suspension.

As I may have mentioned, the Koeberts live in Philly, so good luck with that, Chicago.

“What horrendous treatment we received as visitors to Chicago,” she told me. “We were treated like criminals.”

A closer look at their case reveals a few other suspicious items. The car was towed just 29 minutes after the couple parked in the spot. To them, and to me, that suggests it could be the parking equivalent of a speed trap — perhaps a poorly-marked handicapped spot that generates revenue for the city.

I contacted the mayor’s office and it investigated the towing incident. A representative contacted me and said the city had conducted a through review and concluded that the evidence for the tow and fine was “solid.” It also agreed to waive Koebert’s fee if she wanted to appeal the fine.

But Koebert is done. She doesn’t have any confidence in the justice system. Chicago has sent her a dunning notice, which means it is trying to collect the fine and may have already sent the matter to a collection agency. But so far, her credit report hasn’t shown anything negative.

I’ve done all I can. I still don’t understand why Chicago doesn’t share the evidence it has of her parking violation. What is it afraid of? Is it possible that the image would vindicate her, or worse, that there is no image at all, and that some overzealous meter maid is being protected by the bureaucracy?

Who knows.

One thing is certain: Next time I’m in town, I’m taking the “L.”

(Photo: Andy in Hokk aido/Flickr)

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  • Anonymous

    Why would you drive 12 hours for vacation?  And using a rental car at that?

  • Anonymous

    Chicago should show the pictures — but I’m highly suspicious of the Koeberts. As I’m sure you’ve already considered, a person is not necessarily “super-accurate” just because she believes herself to be so. And it would have made sense to take a picture of the empty space after the towing, just to reference the markings and signage. Either the Koeberts did not do so, or they are equivalently unwilling to share pictures of the crime scene.

    The comment that they were “not within so much as an inch of the handicapped spot” leads me to wonder if they were right up against the line (which might be against the law in Chicago) or even sitting partly on the separator between spaces (which is against the law everywhere).

    More cynically, I wonder if they were among those miscreants who park on the handicap-space hatch marks. This is common in crowded lots (albeit, I am thankful, decreasingly so) — perpetrated according to a selfish view of the real-estate: That it is sufficient simply to leave the handicap spot empty. People who use their brains, however, comprehend that it is not only necessary to leave the handicap spot vacant, but that it is also mandatory to leave room to off-load the wheelchair from the side doors — thus the adjacent hatch marks, which are considered an extension of the handicap space.

    If they parked in these hatch marks (and, of course, I have no way of knowing — but if they did) I hope Chicago bleeds them for every penny it can get.

  • Bodega

    Yes, just did and have many times driven that long to not have to deal with the airlines.    Also, many will rent a car so as not to add mileage to their own car due to insurance companies basing rates on miles driven. 

  • Matthew in BK

    I think that if there is photographic evidence, it should be available to the defendant, both in the interests of justice and to abide by the spirit of evidentiary discovery rules (if indeed Chicago and Illinois have such rules). Having, once upon a time, worked in a government agency that dealt with requests for review of parking violations, my suspicion is that the visitors to Chicago were not fully cognizant of Chicago’s parking laws and probably inadvertently breached them, however, ignorance is no excuse. What I can’t understand is why all these fines are mounting up, they had to pay the penalties to get the car out of impound, that should have been the end of the fines. Sounds like a Chicago shake down to me.

  • Anonymous

    But just out of curiosity – rental car, say 3-4 days, gas, 12 hours in the car rather than enjoying the sites – how much may have been saved by doing that? Where is the relaxation?  And now in this case, the added cost of a parking fine?  I don’t know, I don’t get it.

  • Bodega

    Could be the journey was part of the trip.  It usually is with us.  Last drive to PDX took 10 hours and we beat everyone who flew due to delays and their travel time was over 15 hours plus the cost of a rental car once they arrived and meals.  We stopped for a picnic dinner, so all our cost was gas, which was under $100 and we couldn’t have flown for that amount.

    I am sure there is more to her story.

  • Anonymous

     I don’t know – Philly to Chicago?  I’m sure there’s stuff to see….

  • Bodega

    We need to do a road trip so I can show you!!  You know how I love driving trips!!!!!  Add VA and Green to the car and look out :-)

  • Anonymous

    My family often drove from Baltimore to Chicago to visit family.  Often we rented cars because those cars had unlimited mileage and they were newer and larger than our cars.

    A lot of people would rather take a road trip than go to the airport.  Many families, including my own take them rather frequently.

  • Anonymous

    If I had not just had a close friend relay HER brush with the Chicago justice system this past week, I might have agreed with you.  But while her situation turned out well (ONLY because it turned out that her lawyer went to school with the judge), the person in front of her had basically the exact same situation but could not afford a lawyer and was not even granted the right to a hearing.  My friend’s lawyer told her that the judicial situation in Chicago is VERY VERY UGLY and not fair in the slightest.

  • http://www.xltowingchicago.com/ chicago towing

    This was really bad happen with the couple..
    The end results are nothing.. Individual must have to active and aware before renting a car in different place rather than native place..

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