Blogtalkradio, November 28, 2011, Roadside Safety Checks and Illinois DUI Law with Sarah Manning
Chicago Tribune, October 16, 2011, Jon Yates' "What's Your Problem?"
Problem Solver: Motorist raises ruckus after car is impounded over noise violation. Man paid Berwyn $500, faces further potential fines at Nov. 3 court date.
It was an unseasonably warm October day, and as Jack Stewart drove down Cermak Road in Berwyn en route to pick up a pair of shoes for his wife, the 42-year-old state employee rolled down the windows on his 2002 Pontiac Grand Prix and cranked up Eminem on his car stereo.
Crossing Oak Park Avenue, he noticed a police car behind him, lights flashing.
"I pulled over thinking he was going somewhere else," Stewart said of the Oct. 4 incident. "He got on his loudspeaker and said to pull over and park around the corner."
Thirty minutes later, Stewart's car was impounded — whisked away under Berwyn's noise ordinance, which prohibits any sound that can be heard more than 75 feet away.
Getting his car back was not cheap. When he showed up at the impound lot, Stewart was charged a $500 penalty, paid directly to Berwyn, and another $206 in towing and storage fees.
Upset with the impoundment and the fees, Stewart's wife, Shavon Dawson, emailed, "What's Your Problem?"
Dawson said she knew getting the money back was impossible, but she thought publicizing the incident was a public service.
She called the act of impounding the car for loud music "unethical."
"It's one thing to issue a $100 ticket as a warning, but to automatically just take my car?" Stewart said. "I believe this is their way of gouging people and trying to make up revenue the city doesn't have."
Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois, said vehicle impoundments — and correlating fees — have increased dramatically nationwide, as cash-strapped municipalities look for ways to fill their dwindling coffers.
"One of the things we've seen is relatively minor offenses now have incredible economic consequences that disproportionately fall on people who can't afford them," Yohnka said. "I think there is no question that in many places around the country we've seen that the issue is not law enforcement but rather funding."
In most cases, towns have begun impounding cars for violations such as DUI, solicitation of prostitutes or drug possession. In Chicago, impoundment fees are $1,000, double what Berwyn charges. Chicago's impound fee for DUI arrests would increase to $2,000 next year under Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposed budget.
A Chicago police spokesman said officers are allowed to impound vehicles for a noise violation, but observers say that rarely happens.
Charles Beach, a Chicago DUI and traffic attorney, said villages like Berwyn sometimes enact "draconian measures" like vehicle impoundment to crack down on violence.
"The statute is used as a tool to go after gangbangers," Beach said.
But when used on peaceful motorists like Stewart, such fines have different implications. In some cases, the impound fees are nothing more than a revenue source, Beach said.
"It's just the money-grubbing municipalities looking to make more money," he said.
A survey of the villages surrounding Berwyn show that most have ordinances prohibiting motorists from playing loud music but none impound vehicles for the infraction.
In Forest Park, motorists violating the village noise ordinance are given a ticket, but generally only after someone has complained about the music, most often neighbors living near a carwash, said Tom Aftanas, the village's deputy police chief.
"We don't specifically set up somewhere to try to catch someone with their radio loud," Aftanas said. "We do not impound vehicles for it."
In Oak Park, officers can issue tickets for loud car stereos, with fines ranging from $20 to $750. Village spokesman David Powers said most fines wind up on the lower end of the scale, "unless there was some kind of history or mitigating circumstance."
There is no provision in the Oak Park ordinance for impounding a vehicle for a noise violation.
In neighboring Cicero, cars can be impounded for loud stereos, but town spokesman Ray Hanania said such impounds are extremely uncommon. Police officers use the ordinance as a tool to crack down on noise in neighborhoods and on gang activity, Hanania said.
If a vehicle is impounded, it is likely for another infraction discovered in the process of issuing the noise ordinance ticket, he said. The last vehicle impounded in Cicero for a noise violation was in May, though it was not clear if the motorist was charged with other violations, Hanania said.
The impoundment fee in Cicero is $100, with an additional $100 charged for each day the vehicle remains on the impound lot, Hanania said.
When asked whether Cicero had ever set up a trap to impound cars playing loud music, the spokesman said no.
"We've never done that," he said. "That's not to criticize (Berwyn). What they do is their business. But on our end, there is a concern for the circumstances involved."
In Stewart's case, he was driving down a busy, nonresidential street at 3 p.m. and insists there were plenty of other motorists playing music as loudly as him. He saw no signs announcing Berwyn's noise ordinance and said the officer never provided proof he violated the law.
Stewart said he tried to argue that both the citation and the fees were unwarranted, but the police officer wasn't interested in his pleas.
"He said he sets up a trap for this type of stuff. 'That's how serious we take it in Berwyn,'" Stewart said. "I'm like, 'You're crazy. You can't be taking my car.'"
On top of the $706 he has already paid, the Elmhurst resident is required to attend the Nov. 3 court date to determine whether he is guilty of the actual infraction. He faces up to $165 in court fees and as much as $750 in additional fines. In all, the incident could cost him $1,621.
In Stewart's mind, the money he paid to get his car back following the impound means Berwyn has already determined his guilt. The Nov. 3 hearing, he said, becomes more like an appeals hearing.
Both Beach and Yohnka said courts have ruled repeatedly that impound penalties are legal, and that they are separate from whatever fines a judge imposes for violation of an ordinance.
"I'm not opposed to ordinances to keep down noise and violence," Stewart said. "But the way they're doing it is all wrong."
The Problem Solver called Berwyn's village hall and was referred to Police Chief Jim Ritz. Ritz told the Problem Solver to call the village attorney, Anthony Bertuca. Bertuca never called back, but a secretary at village hall said Bertuca had referred the matter to Mayor Robert J. Lovero.
Lovero did not return calls or an email seeking comment.
Stewart said he will go to the court hearing and argue that the officer has no proof his car stereo was too loud.
"They pull you over for speeding, at least they have a radar gun; if they give you a ticket for running a red light, at least there's a photo," he said. "How do you prove that my music was a danger? And again, since when is loud music an offense of that magnitude where you take my car?"
Stewart said his experience wasn't 100 percent bad. After getting the car out of the impound lot Oct. 4, a few hours after it was taken, he and his wife drove to the shoe store and bought the shoes.
"We needed to walk around, we needed to blow off some steam," he said. "So we bought them."