In 2016, law enforcement in Chicago pulled over Spencer Bird. Spencer was not charged with any crime, yet the police seized his Cadillac DeVille and began civil asset forfeiture proceedings on it. Spencer went to court to reclaim his vehicle, but despite winning the case in August 2017, city authorities have still not released it. It has been two years since the vehicle was seized.
Spencer works as a carpenter in Harvey, a suburb of southern Chicago where more than one third of the population lives below the poverty line. Until his car was taken, Spencer also worked as a mechanic. Repairing cars had been a passion since he was a teen.
To help his clients out, Spencer would often give them rides if he couldn’t fix their cars right away. On June 21, 2016, he gave one such client a ride. They were pulled over by police, who claimed Spencer had a broken turn signal. Spencer said his signal was not broken, but the situation rapidly escalated well beyond this. The police searched Spencer and his passenger. While police found nothing on Spencer, it turned out his passenger was carrying a tennis ball-sized bag of heroin.
After questioning, Spencer was quickly released. While the police filed no criminal charges against Spencer, they nonetheless seized his car. On July 31, he filed a claim with Cook County State’s Attorney to regain possession of his car.
While his vehicle was valued at $1,600, Spencer also had tools necessary worth $3,500 in the trunk. He was not allowed to retrieve them. With neither a vehicle to visit clients nor tools to do his work, Spencer has been placed in an impossible position.
In November 2016, Spencer filed a hardship motion with the Cook County civil asset forfeiture court. He explained his situation: “I’m in need of my auto because I’m a carpenter by trade, and this is my business. … My tools are in the 1996 Cadillac sedan. I used the auto to go to various jobs. Can’t pay any bills as this is my livelihood. I would appreciate this [the release of the car] for me and my children.”
Spencer was not asking for the county to drop civil asset forfeiture procedures against his car, simply for them to allow him to continue to use it while his case was pending. The state judge ordered the Chicago Police Department to give Spencer his car back.
Spencer believed he had made a breakthrough. However, because Illinois state law allows cities with populations over 25,000 a great deal of legal freedom, it meant the city of Chicago did not have to obey the state judge’s order. They refused to release it unless he paid the fines and fees which had been accumulating since the vehicle had been seized. By February 2017, Spencer owed the city $8,790 in fees.
The case worked its way both through the courts. In a stroke of good fortune, on August 10, 2017, a state judge found Byrd to be an “innocent owner.” As a result, his vehicle was ineligible for civil asset forfeiture procedures, and Spencer would be allowed to retrieve his car. The judge also waived the storage fees.
Despite this, Spencer was still required to pay a $2,000 fine for having had drugs in his car. Unable to afford the fine, Spencer’s car is still held by Chicago law enforcement. The city has threatened to sell his car for scrap, but Spencer has managed to hold them back from doing so, for now.
“I’m almost to the point of being homeless. If I was found guilty or in the wrong, do what you gotta do, but I was blind to the fact,” explains Spencer. “I have no background in drugs. No felonies, no nothing, just been working hard all my life.”
The final outcome of Spencer’s case remains uncertain.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.