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Are Tow Redemption Fees Unconstitutional?

Brian L. Polinske
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Edwardsville Criminal Defense Trial Lawyer

It happens frequently.  A person is stopped for a traffic offense including DUI.  That person is arrested and must pay the consequences as far as court and fines are concerned.  In Illinois that person may pay up to $2,500 in fines alone for a DUI.  Aside from that the person must pay for the tow of their vehicle.  Most people don't have a problem with any of those fees.  However, on top of all of those fees is an additional $500.00 that municipalities are charging called a tow redemption fee.  The fee is merely to reimburse a clerk for issuing a receipt for payment.  The fee is apparently just a ruse to obtain an additional $500.00 from the individual.  If the person doesn't pay the fee they don't get their car back.  Or worse yet, its forfeited.  

Municipal employees call the fee a "pay to play" charge that is necesary to recoup costs associated with the procedural preparation of all paperwork associated with whatever charge the person is facing.  I believe the fee is an unconstitutional fee that runs astray of the limits placed upon municipalities by the United States Constitution.  The Constitution allows only those fees that are "reasonably related" to whatever service is being provided.  In the context of tow redemption fees a reasonable fee would only amount to a few dollars to reimburse the city for whatever few minutes the clerk had to expend to issue the receipt.  

Redemption fees started about 10 years ago.  Probably after a municipality attended a conference where the fees were raised.  I believe these fees originated in Florida from my research.  The fees have grown to as much as $600.00.  As municipalities scramble to obtain more and more money to support whatever their "needs" may be the redemption fees have grown in popularity.

Unchecked just think what the fees might grow into.  There could be a fee of $1,000.  Or maybe even $10,000.  The greater the fee the higher the rate of people losing their vehicles due to their inability to pay.  Under this rationale could a city charge a fee of $10,000 when a fire engine responds to a burning leaves call?  Or an actual fire?  Could a city charge a $5,000 fee anytime an ambulance is called?  It seems if a redemption fee is allowed there are many other actions for which the city could charge a hefty "user fee."  

We addressed this constitutional issue during an appeal of four of these cases.  The case is titled "Carter v. the City of Alton."  The decision was favorable for us and remanded the case back for trial reversing Judge Thomas Chapman's dismissal of the complaints.   I anticipate other appeals as this litigation progresses towards trial.  The fifth district court was very concerned wtih the runaway ability to charge persons for a variety of municipal activities which normally aren't connected to a fee.  

At trial I don't believe the municipalities' arguments will sit well with the jury.  I believe most jurors will find these fees offensive and unconstitutional.

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