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Aldermen To Weigh $4.95M Settlement Of Lawsuit Over Failure To Return Impounded Vehicles To Innocent Owners

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Chicago taxpayers could soon be on the hook for nearly $5 million to settle a federal class action lawsuit that claims police have routinely refused to release impounded vehicles even when they should have, and even pressured lenders to repossess the cars, despite their owners being entitled to get them back.

The agenda for Monday's City Council Finance Committee meeting includes a proposed $4.95 million settlement of a class action lawsuit filed by three vehicle owners whose cars were seized when passengers, or someone else driving the owner's vehicle, were arrested on drug charges.

According to the lawsuit, in each case, the drug charges were either dropped altogether, or reduced to misdemeanors, meaning the owners should have been entitled to get their cars back from the city pound, and a refund of any fees they'd paid. Instead, in each case, the city repeatedly refused to release their vehicles, and even contacted lenders to pressure them to repossess the cars, according to the lawsuit.

In two specific cases cited by the lawsuit, the owners never got their vehicles back, and in another, the owner -- Manuel Barrios -- got his car back only after taking the city to court, and having been deprived of his vehicle for four months.

The lawsuit claims the three specific cases cited were not isolated incidents, but examples of a city policy to continue impounding vehicles that have been seized in drug arrests, even after charges are dropped, or reduced to misdemeanors.

"These allegations plausibly suggest that the City acted pursuant to a policy of trying to part people in Barrios' situation from their cars, that the City attempted to attain this goal by following its practice of trying to convince Barrios' lienholder to repossess his car, that City pound staff repeatedly refused to turn over Barrios' car because that would thwart the repossession plan, and that Barrios was finally able to put the brakes on this practice by abandoning direct dealings with the City and filing a state court mandamus action," U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall wrote in a 2016 ruling, denying the city's attempt to dismiss the lawsuit.

Gottschall has since approved class action status for the lawsuit, including approximately 356 vehicles impounded under similar circumstances.

If approved by the Finance Committee and the full City Council, the settlement is still subject to a fairness hearing, the final step in approving settlement of any class action lawsuit. That hearing currently is scheduled for December.


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