* Chicago Reader…
When the clerk called Willie Mae Swansey’s case in a crowded courtroom last February, the 72-year-old approached the judge slowly, supporting herself with a four-pronged cane. It had been a busy afternoon in the Daley Center’s civil forfeiture courtroom, with more than a dozen quick hearings and a pair of trials preceding her own. The crush of defense lawyers and hopeful claimants had thinned by the time Swansey stepped up to the bench. She steadied herself beside a prosecutor and stood with a stately straightening of her back.
Swansey was here to reclaim her car. The Chicago Police Department had seized the 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser two years prior, arresting the driver, Swansey’s son, and charging him with manufacturing or delivering 15 to 100 grams of heroin. The car had been impounded ever since. Swansey herself was never charged with a crime, and it was her name, not her son’s, on the title. All the same, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office had agreed with CPD that the vehicle, which the office valued at $1,400, was worth keeping for good.
Swansey was prepared to tell the court that her 53-year-old son, Vincent Turner, had taken her keys without her permission. She wanted to explain that she needed her car not only for basic needs like groceries and laundry, but also because she and her granddaughter, whom she cares for, make frequent trips to doctors’ offices and hospitals. Swansey suffers from congestive heart failure, while her granddaughter has cerebral palsy and experiences frequent seizures. She wanted also to stress she had no knowledge that her son had drugs in her car.
“Ain’t no way I’d let them take my car for drugs,” Swansey later said. “That’s not me. I’m not that kind of person.”
But at her February trial date, she wasn’t allowed to argue her case. The judge simply asked if her son’s criminal case had been resolved. It hadn’t, so by law, the judge was allowed to delay the civil litigation until after the criminal case was over. They would reconvene in two months, the judge said.
This was the ninth time Swansey had appeared in civil forfeiture court and the ninth time she was told she’d have to come back. A lawyer, had she been able to hire one, could have filed a hardship motion that would allow Swansey access to the car while she waited. A lawyer might have also convinced a judge to hear the case immediately, since Swansey didn’t plan to contest the allegations against her son.
But for the fixed-income retiree, hiring a lawyer was not an option.
“I’m a poor black woman,” Swansey says. “I don’t have no money for an attorney.” Instead, she continued to represent herself.
Go read the whole thing. I mean it. The. Whole. Thing.
Kimberly Foxx needs to address this problem as soon as she’s sworn in as state’s attorney.
*** UPDATE *** Put into the context of the cops seizing a poor woman’s $1200 car, this is just infuriating…
Drunken drivers with prior convictions for driving under the influence might consider driving expensive cars, given a recent ruling by an Illinois appellate court.
“That’s, essentially, the policy that’s being espoused by the Fifth District (Appellate Court),” said David Robinson, a state appellate prosecutor who came out on the losing end of a case in which the court reversed a trial judge and ordered a pricey motorcycle returned to its owner.
In a Sept. 22 ruling, the Fifth District Appellate Court reversed a ruling by Crawford County Circuit Court Judge Christopher Weber, who had upheld the seizure of a $35,000 Harley-Davidson trike from a woman who was a passenger when her husband was busted for driving under the influence. In reversing the forfeiture, the appellate court ruled that vehicle’s value was out of proportion with the misdeed, and so seizure was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, which bars excessive fines to punish wrongdoing.
In reversing the trial judge, the appellate court said that the financial circumstance of the trike’s owner didn’t matter – whether she was rich or poor, the vehicle’s value alone made the seizure a “harsh penalty” that was out of step with the gravity of the offense, the appellate court ruled.