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Our view: Towing fees are excessive

Published: Sunday, April 21, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Several area municipalities have discovered a new cash cow. Administrative towing fees, similar to redlight cameras, seem designed for the sole purpose of generating easy revenue for cities and villages.

It might be easy to say you don’t care about these relatively new fees imposed mainly against people charged with driving under the influence, driving with a suspended license or similar offenses. Do the crime, then pay the fine.

But this is a slippery slope.

Many municipalities, including Algonquin, Cary, Crystal Lake, Lakemoor, McHenry and others, are charging between $300 and $500 as an administrative fee when their police officers have a vehicle towed. The fee has nothing to do with costs incurred by the municipality.

People who are charged with the above offenses still must pay for the cost of towing and storing the vehicle, and also are prosecuted for their offenses by private attorneys from those same municipalities.

Most cases are resolved through negotiated plea, and municipal prosecutors negotiate the terms to resolve those cases including fines of up to $2,500, much of which goes to the municipality.

There also are court costs, sometimes probation and even jail time. Defendants who don’t qualify for a public defender also face significant defense attorney bills.

Many of these costs are appropriate and should serve as deterrents to drunken driving and other offenses. Sometimes, the only way people learn a lesson is through a swift kick in the pocketbook.

While most arrests are justified, not all charges are. Sometimes police officers make mistakes, and some police officers err on the side of writing a ticket or making an arrest even in borderline situations, allowing the courts to sort out the details.

And that’s the key difference: The courts will sort it out. The individual who has been cited has due process rights and the presumption of innocence. Disposition of cases that don’t end in clear guilty findings can be negotiated appropriately.

There is no due process when a municipality charges a $500 administrative fee regardless of guilt or innocence. To shrug it off with a belief that drunken drivers deserve whatever they get is missing the larger point.

What if a municipality decided to charge a $500 fee because you got a parking ticket or speeding ticket? We suspect there would be a lot more outrage.

We empathize with governments facing budgetary challenges. But imposing fees that are unrelated to enforcement costs is an inappropriate way to generate income.

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