On June 21, 2016, Chicago police pulled Spencer Byrd over for a broken turn signal. Byrd says his signal wasn’t broken, but that detail would soon be the least of his worries. Ever since, Byrd has been trapped in one of the city’s most confusing bureaucratic mazes, deprived of his car and his ability to work. He now owes the city thousands of dollars for the pleasure.
Byrd, 50, lives in Harvey, Illinois, a corrupt, crime-ridden town south of Chicago where more than 35 percent of the populace lives below the poverty line. He’s a carpenter by trade, but until the traffic stop, he had a side gig as an auto mechanic. Byrd says he’s been fixing cars “ever since I was 16 years old and blew my first motor.” Sometimes he did service calls and would give clients rides when he couldn’t repair their cars on the spot.
On this early summer night, Byrd was giving a client, a man he says he had never met before, a ride in his Cadillac DeVille. Police pulled both of them out of the car and searched them. Byrd was clean, but in his passenger’s pocket was a bag of heroin the size of a tennis ball.
The two were hauled off to the precinct house. Police released Byrd after a short stint in an interrogation room without charging him with a crime. But when Byrd went to retrieve his car, he found out the Chicago Police Department had seized and impounded it.
Byrd had run afoul of Chicago’s aggressive vehicle impound program, which seizes cars and fines owners thousands of dollars for dozens of different offenses. The program impounds cars when the owner beats a criminal case or isn’t charged with a crime in the first place. It impounds cars even when the owner isn’t even driving, like when a child is borrowing a parent’s car.