ACLU Challenges Illinois Law Allowing Police to Seize Cars of Suspected Gang Members

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
July 28, 1999 12:00 am

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CHICAGO — The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois today filed a class action lawsuit in Federal District Court challenging the constitutionality of a Cicero ordinance allowing police to seize and impound the cars of suspected gang members.

The ACLU said that the ordinance is unconstitutional because of its vague nature, as well as the unfettered power it grants to police. In enforcing the ordinance, police are authorized to seize and impound the vehicle of any person driving in Cicero — and suspected by the police of being a gang member — without offering any evidence that the individual was engaged in a criminal offense.

The lawsuit charges that the ordinance specifically violates the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of association, Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable seizure, Due Process provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Eighth Amendment guarantee against excessive fines.

“The effect of the ordinance is to give to the police broad, sweeping powers to decide who can and cannot drive on the streets of Cicero,” said Harvey Grossman, Legal Director for the ACLU of Illinois. “Individuals can have their cars seized by the police even though they are not engaged in a crime. These persons are being punished for an unproven suspicion.”

The ordinance was adopted by the Cicero Board of Trustees on April 27, 1999, and amended on June 22, 1999. The law specified that persons suspected of being gang members are subject to having their cars seized if they are found driving in areas designated as “gang-free” zones.

The ACLU lawsuit was filed on behalf of Crystal Cagle, a Cicero resident whose car was seized by police on June 30, 1999. Ms. Cagle was never charged with any crime in conjunction with the seizure and was not even held by police — only forced to walk home.

Cicero held two hearings (on July 1 and July 15, 1999) concerning the seizure of Ms. Cagle’s automobile. The arresting officer did not appear at the initial hearing. The presiding officer at the second hearing concluded the seizure was justified because Ms. Cagle was visiting friends in her old neighborhood which Cicero contends is an area of known gang activity, even though the police had presented no evidence that Ms. Cagle had participated in any criminal gang activity.

The Town of Cicero has declared the entire town to be a “gang free” zone. The result is that anyone suspected of gang membership by the police cannot drive any vehicle into or within Cicero for any reason — to go to school, to go to work, to go to the doctor, to go to the store — without fear of having that vehicle seized and impounded.

“The hearing turned our usual conception of justice on its head,” said Marc Beem, ACLU volunteer cooperating attorney on the case and partner at the Chicago law firm of Miller, Shakman, Hamilton, Kurtzon & Schlifke, who attended the July 15 hearing. “Ms. Cagle was asked to prove her innocence, even though Cicero offered no evidence that she had engaged in any criminal gang activity.”

“In light of the fact that she has been charged with no crime in this instance,” he added, “it is difficult to imagine how Cicero justifies keeping Ms. Cagle’s car and denying her the ability to go about her life in a normal fashion.”

Today’s lawsuit asks that the Cicero ordinance be declared unconstitutional and that its enforcement be immediately enjoined. The suit also seeks the return of Ms. Cagle’s car and seeks to force Cicero to vacate all fines and fees now owed by Ms. Cagle as a result of the seizure of her car.

On June 10 of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the City of Chicago’s “anti-gang loitering” ordinance, in a challenge brought by the ACLU of Illinois and the Cook County Public Defender’s Office. The ACLU’s news release on that case is at /news/1999/n061099a.html.

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