Saturday, August 16, 2008

Government-sanctioned extortion

There's an interesting little ordinance that's making the grade in towns all over the area, these days. The ordinance has hit our charming Maple City, and is already making waves. This new ordinance says that the city may impound your car for a number of reasons, including drunk driving, drug possession in a vehicle, concealed weapon in a vehicle or driving with suspended license.

This particular ordinance was drafted purely as a "revenue enhancer" for each city which has introduced it. How does it enhance revenues? Well, if a person's automobile is impounded, there is a $500 administrative fee (the folks at the city hall desk aren't sure exactly what the money is for, but according to a Galesburg Register-Mail interview with Mayor Rod Davies, the aim is to garner enough cash to pay for the renovation or rebuilding of Monmouth's City Hall, finally moving them back out of the building which used to house the First National Bank of Monmouth). So, the city drafted a rule whereby the city can seize your car and extort money from you for its return.

Think I'm exaggerating the circumstances? Not really. The Register-Mail article does not mention this, but the new ordinance allows for seizure of vehicle from a driver, regardless of whether or not he owns the car. The city can impound a car driven by a teen, even if the teen was driving the family car without permission from the parents. That's a hard way to discover your perfectly normal teen has been sneaking out at night.

But that's not the worst of it.

The city can also impound the car driven by someone using a suspended license. It does not make allowances for whether or not the driver has knowledge of his own license suspension. It does not make allowances for whether or not a separate owner of the vehicle has knowledge of the suspension of the driver's license.

This past week, a case came to the city courts of a citizen of this community who allowed her nephew to drive a vehicle she owns. The nephew is a responsible teen, and she felt she could trust him to show good judgment. The teen is not old enough to drive with more than one underage passenger, so he allowed his older teen friend to drive when a third teen joined them. The older friend had a suspended license. Without going into the gory details, I will here and now say that, according to all accounts, nobody had ever bothered to tell the young friend that his license had been suspended. Not even when he was stopped on the street for riding a bicycle after dark without a working headlamp, only a couple of weeks prior, and had his license run through the system, -- never was he told his license had been suspended more than a month earlier, until he was accosted by a police officer while he was driving his friend's aunt's vehicle.

So, the police had the car towed. The officer informed the citizen, who had come to the scene when called by her nephew, that she had no say in it -- the car was going to the impound lot. When she asked the officer why it was being impounded, he informed her that the youth's license to drive had been suspended, and that was reason enough. City ordinance. When it was pointed out that the citizen had not known the youth's license had been suspended, the officer responded with, essentially, "Ignorance is no excuse."

At the police station and at City Hall, the citizen repeatedly queried about this ordinance and its enforcement in this case, and was told, "You should have known." Should have known that the young man's driver's license was suspended, that is. The youth had not been informed of it prior to that evening, so he had no knowledge. If he did not know his license was suspended, how could he inform others?

How, then, is a private citizen to know? We are not permitted to simply contact the Department of Motor Vehicles and "run" a license. We can't even get a copy of our own records, let alone those of somebody outside our families. And, yet, ignorance of suspension is no excuse. When the city says so, they can take your car. It will cost you $500 plus towing and storage fees to get it back.

Call me crazy, but it seems to me, there's something in the Constitution of the United States of America which prohibits unwarranted seizure of property. I'm urging the city to rescind or amend this dirty little cash cow, before somebody who has suffered this extortion gets wise, gets a good lawyer, and starts a class-action lawsuit. All it would take to forestall that trouble, I suspect, is the judicious use of the word "knowingly", or something similar, in rewriting the ordinance -- and, maybe, an apology and reimbursement to those who were ill-used before the change in language.

The city may not be able to afford a shiny new city hall building without it, but I'm pretty sure the public will be even less happy if they're paying for legal damages to the many who have already been extorted out of their hard-earned cash.

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