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

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By Christopher Elliott

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.

Vacation parking nightmare

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.

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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).

Chicago’s parking peril

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. (Related: Hertz billed her for eight extra days on her car. Where’s the refund?)

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. (Here’s our guide to renting a car.)

My advocacy team and 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.

Unsettled scores

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.”

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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