Normally, there’s a word for taking someone’s property and keeping it: theft. Yet, for Wilmington, Delaware, and its private towing contractors, taking property and keeping it is just standard towing and impound procedure.
The city’s program is transparently abusive and blatantly unconstitutional. Here’s how it works: Wilmington outsources its municipal program to private companies, “paying” for these services by giving the towing companies the power to keep people’s cars. The city gets the service at no cost, and contractors make money by keeping and scrapping many of the cars they tow. Vehicle owners, meanwhile, lose everything.
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The system is a cash cow for Wilmington. The city issues a lot of parking tickets and then tells its contractors to tow any legally parked car with $200 or more in outstanding fines. Once they take your car, the only way to get it out of the pound is to pay Wilmington every penny it demands for parking tickets, plus penalties and fees. If an owner cannot afford to pay the full amount within 30 days, the private companies scrap the car and keep the full value for themselves. Outrageously, the city doesn’t even credit the value toward the owner’s parking tickets!
Take, for example, what happened to IJ client Ameera Shaheed. Wilmington ticketed Ameera’s legally parked car five times in five days, with fines totaling more than $200. Then, while her ticket appeal was pending, one of the city’s towing companies took her car. Ameera is disabled, lives on a fixed income, and needs her car to get around. But the city didn’t care. Because Ameera couldn’t afford to pay the full ransom within 30 days, Wilmington and the towing company scrapped her car. The city didn’t credit the car’s value toward Ameera’s parking tickets and sent her debt collection letters for the full amount—with additional penalties continuing to accrue. On top of that, because the city claims she still owes the same ticket debt, Wilmington could immediately tow Ameera’s next car, if she could afford one.
Ameera is not alone. In 2020, the city’s towing company “kept” at least 987 cars—nearly 40% of those it towed. And even paying the city’s ransom doesn’t guarantee your car’s safety. Our client Earl Dickerson paid his tickets, and the towing company still scrapped his car after demanding more than $900 in additional fees. As in Ameera’s case, the towing company kept the full value for itself.
IJ intends to end Wilmington’s unconstitutional towing and impound program for good. We are already suing Chicago over the exorbitant fees it charges when it impounds cars. Together, these cases will give us ample opportunity to show cities that the Constitution doesn’t permit them to use the public as their piggy banks.
Will Aronin is an IJ attorney.