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Thursday, September 8, 2016

City’s Impoundment Ordinances Constitutionally Upheld

In Bell v. City of Chicago, a recent case from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, the court upheld Chicago's impoundment-related ordinances, despite plaintiffs’ allegations that the ordinances were facially invalid under the Fourth Amendment.  

The case arose when Bell was arrested by Chicago Police Officers for possession of a controlled substance.  At the time of his arrest, Bell was driving Sprink’s vehicle.  Sprink’s vehicle was impounded pursuant to the City’s municipal code under § 7‐24‐225, which allows officers to impound a vehicle if they have probable cause to believe the vehicle either contained a controlled substance of was used in an illegal drug transaction.  Two days after Bell’s arrest, Sprink challenged the impoundment before an administrative law judge, who found that there was probable cause at the time of the impoundment since the vehicle contained illegal drugs. The administrative law judge subsequently found that Sprink violated § 7‐24‐225, assessing a $2,000 penalty and $180 in storage and towing fees. 

Bell and Sprink filed suit against the City and a district court dismissed the case. On appeal, plaintiffs argued that the impoundment ordinances were unconstitutional because the ordinances permit warrantless seizures of vehicles in all instances and allow a City administrative law judge, a non-judicial officer, to determine whether there is probable cause to keep a vehicle impounded. 

The 7th Circuit first noted that, when making a facial challenge to an ordinance under the Fourth Amendment, plaintiffs have the burden of “establishing that a law is unconstitutional in all of its applications.”  In analyzing the challenge to the impoundment ordinance, the court balanced the government interest against the private interest. Here, the court found that the warrantless seizures authorized under the City’s ordinances were no different than those authorized by the U.S. Supreme Court. Warrantless seizures are not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment when an officer has probable cause to believe that the vehicle was used to violate the law. 

The 7th Circuit also found that the City's use of administrative law judges was a post-seizure procedure that did not implicate the Fourth Amendment.  

This case not only reminds us of the importance of a well-plead complaint, but as an example of the heavy burden that plaintiffs  face when making a facial challenge under the Fourth Amendment. 

Post Authored by Katie O'Grady, Ancel Glink


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