Elgin uses towing as deterrent and 'cash cow'

On March 14, 18-year-old David Liberato was driving in Elgin with a suspended license. He came to a complete stop at an intersection, then signaled to turn left. Once he made the turn, an Elgin police officer pulled him over for failing to signal 100 feet before the intersection.

Though Liberato's girlfriend was in the car and had a valid license, his car was subject to a mandatory tow. He paid $175 to the towing company and $500 to the City of Elgin — a boost to the city's general fund.

The city's fee is for an “administrative tow,” and is required for drivers pulled over for any of four offenses: driving without a license, driving with a suspended or revoked license, driving under the influence or operating a vehicle with the sound system loud enough to be heard at least 75 feet away.

Before October 2009, the noise violation was the only one that called for an administrative tow (which only cost $250 then) — and that came after a citizen satisfaction survey that listed loud stereos as the number one complaint, according to Mayor Ed Schock.

The city council expanded the program and raised the fee, partly to be in line with surrounding communities like Hanover Park, the city's model for the program.

Elgin has since received more than $1.5 million in administrative towing fees.

“The city, not unlike many cities across the country, has felt that it's important to assign the cost to those individuals that are creating an undue burden on the system,” Elgin City Manager Sean Stegall said. “Otherwise, the citizens of Elgin are subsidizing those violations.”

Mundelein Police Chief Ray Rose is a past president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. He said the fees have become more prevalent in the last five years in departments across the suburbs and throughout the state.

Mundelein charges the same $500 fee for five offenses including DUI, fleeing and alluding an officer and felony drug arrests.

Rose said the offenses for which departments charge vary but the rationale is consistent: the fine is viewed as a user fee. For the 40 years Rose has been in law enforcement, departments have received portions of ticket fine amounts. The administrative tow is the next wave of a similar concept, then.

“It's not fair to taxpayers to carry the burden,” he said.

Lt. Glenn Theriault is the director of adjudication for the Elgin Police Department, which puts him in charge of overseeing the newly created division that processes people like Liberato.

In-house adjudication started with the expanded fee categories for administrative towing in Elgin. In prior years, the city's share of the money collected from offenders dwindled to become almost negligible, Theriault said. Most went to the counties prosecuting the cases. By covering the costs of administering the hearings, the city can now collect all of the revenue, saving enough to make the program worthwhile.

Liberato was able to pay his fines and pick up his car the same day he got his ticket. But on April 12 he had the chance to argue his case at an adjudication hearing and see if the city would give him the money back. Liberato didn't show up, but nonetheless had little hope.

Theriault said some people do get their money back — if a vehicle was stolen when it was towed or the reason for the ticket was based on incorrect information, for example. But he said it is pretty rare.

In the 17 months before the fee change just fewer than 3,100 people were ticketed for the four offenses, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. In the 17 months since the change, that number rose to about 3,700 — a count that has earned the city $1,577,733.

The increase in tickets is completely accounted for by the driver's license citations; DUI and sound amplification violations are on the decline.

Stegall said that is the ultimate goal of implementing fees: monetary punishment to deter the behavior. He said the offenses will never end completely, but he expects the revenue from collecting the fees to decline as the traffic stops decrease.

“It wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility to see us increase those (fines) in increments over the next several years to make it more and more onerous for people to commit those offenses,” Stegall said.

The decision to expand the scope and size of the fines would need a council majority. The current council seems in favor of expanding the scope, at least.

The initial vote to raise the towing fee and increase the violations warranting it was unanimous. And Dave Kaptain, who will replace Schock as mayor next week, said he was the one who proposed expanding the program beyond noise violations in the first place.

Kaptain said he would support further expansion to include administrative tows for possession of drugs or stolen property and perhaps insurance violations — though he acknowledges it is harder for police officers to find out if someone truly doesn't have insurance or just doesn't have the card with them during a traffic stop.

“I want to make sure what we expand it to is something we can verify in the field by the police officer,” Kaptain said.

The Elgin Police Department also recently partnered with state Rep. Keith Farnham in writing a House bill that would allow police departments to seek reimbursement for money spent apprehending drug dealers and illegal drug users from the offenders themselves.

Ed Yohnka is the director of communications with the Illinois affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. He said the trend toward requiring people who have been arrested to pay for police service is troubling. The ACLU has looked at the issue of administrative towing fees and noticed a trend across the country that rises and falls with the state of the economy.

“You always become concerned when penalties such as this appear to become cash cows for local municipalities,” Yohnka said. “In that you are essentially taking what should be a fairly minor offense and making it into a distinct financial hardship for people.”

For Yohnka and the ACLU, it raises the question of whether offenders really should pay for law enforcement, or if that is something residents should expect from government.

Mayor Schock said $500 was “reasonable” while also providing a deterrent.

He said the fee offsets the time spent filling out paperwork and processing people who commit certain violations.

“It's taking a cop off the street,” Schock said. “So we thought, anything we can do to help recover our costs and send a message that we were tough on these issues.”

But the fee has not added new officers.

Theriault said each traffic stop occupies an officer for at least an hour because of paperwork and processing. Since the new fees took effect, the number of officers in Elgin has decreased.

Recovering almost $1.6 million because of administrative tows has been a bonus for the general fund, but it hasn't meant extra money for the police department in the face of budget shortfalls.

For 2011 alone, Elgin will lose $2.1 million because the city held the property tax rate constant. The extra money has helped, but certainly hasn't caused a surplus. And in Elgin, departments that see greater-than-expected revenues do not enjoy increased freedom for expenditures, according to Chief Financial Officer Colleen Lavery.

With Liberato, at least, the police department can claim a victory. The young man said he will not be driving before getting his license reinstated. His girlfriend has taken on the job of chauffeur, taking him to work and picking him up again in the evenings. An inconvenience, Liberato said, but better than another tow.

Dollars and cents of Elgin towing policy