Last July, Arlene Martsolf got a letter from the city saying her car had been towed and was being held in storage at a cost of about $35 a day. She paid no attention to the letter. "It's not my car," she says. "It's my boyfriend's car--my ex-boyfriend's car. I assumed the city wouldn't press me for the money."
Wrong. "The city's still holding the car, and every day the storage fee just gets higher," says Martsolf. "It's in the thousands of dollars, and it won't stop. I'm trapped in the bureaucracy. It's a nightmare--I can't get out."
The story begins about two years ago, when Martsolf, a waitress at the Golden Nugget restaurant at Lawrence and Ravenswood, broke up with her boyfriend, a guy I'll call Bill. They'd never married, but they had a child together and for several years lived as a family with her son from a previous marriage. In April 2001 they bought a used car together. "It was a 1990 Ford Probe," says Martsolf. "We bought it off another waitress at the Nugget for $2,500."
Bill's name was on the title, and Martsolf says she put her name on it too. "Looking back, I can see that was a mistake," she says. "I don't even drive. But I was planning to learn. I figured I should have my name on that title because I was going to get my permit in that car."
About two months after they bought the car Martsolf and Bill split up. On June 28, 2001, she says, she signed over the car and handwrote a bill of sale that reads, "I, Arlene Martsolf, give my interest in this automobile to [Bill]. There are no liens on this automobile. Car is handed over as is. I give up all rights to this automobile." The note is signed by Martsolf and Bill. "I didn't take any money from him for the car," says Martsolf. "I just gave it to him. I don't care about the car. Like I said, I don't drive. It was just like, take the car, and I'll get on with my life."
Then last July, Bill got into an accident, totaling the car. He wasn't hurt, but according to Chicago police, he was arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated.
A week later the city's Department of Revenue sent Martsolf a letter informing her that "a motor vehicle titled in your name was impounded" under section 7-24-226 of the municipal code, which covers "impoundment for Driving while Intoxicated." The letter went on to say that Martsolf could "contest this charge by filing a written request for a hearing before the Department of Administrative Hearings within 30 days." It also said, "Only the owner of record may request a hearing."
"I read that sentence about only the owner may request a hearing and thought, 'Well, this doesn't apply to me--I'm not the owner,'" says Martsolf. "I transferred the title, remember? So I can't request a hearing. This is my ex's business."
A month passed, and on August 26 Martsolf got a notice from the city's Department of Administrative Hearings, notifying her that she owed a $500 violation fee (for driving while intoxicated), a $150 towing fee, and a $1,056 storage fee. "That woke me up," says Martsolf. "I'm like, $1,700! What's going on? I wasn't even driving the car. Why am I being charged for driving while intoxicated? Why am I being charged an impoundment fee?"
Along with the letter came a form she could use if she wanted to contest the fines. She filled it out and sent it back, asking the city not to hold her liable because she was "no longer the owner of the vehicle."
The city scheduled a hearing for October 16 at the Department of Administrative Hearings, at 400 W. Superior. She showed up with a friend, Jim Ziaja. She also brought a copy of her handwritten bill of sale and a copy of the title she'd signed over to Bill. "This," she says, "was my proof that the car was not mine."
The hearing officer didn't see it that way. "The hearing officer didn't even look at my documentation," says Martsolf. "I tried to show it to him, but he refused to see it. He kept saying that according to the secretary of state records--the official record--the title had never been transferred."
That's when it dawned on Martsolf that Bill had never sent the transferred title to the state. "I had signed the title over to him, but he didn't take it to the state or to a currency exchange or wherever to have it officially processed," she says. "I should have done that myself." Still, Bill's name was on the old title, and he was the one who'd been arrested.
She pleaded with the hearing officer. "Here I am--a waitress with two kids, and I didn't really do anything wrong," she says. "I wasn't driving the car. I wasn't driving while drunk. It's not even my car. I'm not trying to hide anything. I'm showing up for the hearing. I said, 'You should be talking to my ex-boyfriend.' And they said, 'Well, he's not here--you're here.' So I guess I'm getting punished because I'm the responsible one who shows up." She also suspected the city wasn't going out of its way to find him. Letters from the Department of Revenue addressed to him had come to her house; she'd forwarded them to the last address she had, at his brother's, but no one from the city had contacted her to ask where he was.
The hearing officer denied her request for an appeal and ordered her to pay the fines, which by then had grown to $2,245. "I didn't know what to do," says Martsolf. "I couldn't afford to pay the fine. So we asked the people who work at the desk at the hearing office, What do we do? And they told us that if I paid the $500 violation fee--the original fine for driving while intoxicated--then I wouldn't have to pay the storage fee. We actually called to the office at Superior twice to confirm this. We were told, 'You can wipe the slate clean for $500.'"
Ziaja says he got the same message when he called on Martsolf's behalf: "I called the main information desk for the Department of Administrative Hearings, and whoever answered the phone said, 'Yes, that's how the deal works. If you don't want the car and Arlene doesn't want the car, then all you have to do is pay the $500.'"
Martsolf decided to pay. "Part of me didn't want to pay a dime--because I hadn't done anything wrong," she says. "But I wanted to end this. It could ruin my credit, which I work hard to keep up."
And what about getting help from her ex-boyfriend?
"He's sort of disappeared," she says. "Jim and I went looking for him. We went to his brother's house, to his favorite tavern. We couldn't find him. I finally talked to him and told him what's been happening and he said, 'Oh, that's really bad.' But he's not doing anything about it." (I tracked down Bill, who was staying with his sister in Milwaukee, and left messages, but he didn't call back.)
On October 23 Martsolf sent the city a check for $500, along with a handwritten note that begins, "Dear Department of Administrative Hearings: I have enclosed a check in the amount of five hundred dollars for the violation fee. I was told if you kept the car the towing and storage fee would be waived; therefore, the car is yours to keep." She also wrote a postscript: "Please send a verification letter stating that I made the payment in full."
On December 11 the city responded. "Please be advised, the Department of Revenue does not accept partial payment for the Vehicle Impoundment Program," stated a letter from Nikole Johnson, a supervisor in the revenue department. "We are returning your check number 355 in the amount of $500.00." The letter went on to say that Martsolf's "accrued storage charges" were now $5,415, which meant she owed a total of $6,065.
Martsolf received the letter on December 13. She says she and Ziaja immediately tried to call Johnson. "We couldn't get her," says Ziaja. "Arlene was at work, so I kept trying. I called every 15 minutes for two hours. I talked to a lady in the office named Carol. She said, 'Nikole's at lunch.' I finally got Nikole, and she says, 'How come Arlene's not calling?' I said, 'Arlene's at work. How come you didn't call back?' She said she was on the phone. I said, 'On the phone? Carol told me you were having lunch. That's a nice two-hour lunch.'"
Ziaja says Johnson told him "the car was going to be destroyed a week from the day we were having this conversation, which means it would be destroyed on December 20. By then we figured the fine would climb to well over $6,000."
According to Annette Arredondo, a spokeswoman for the revenue department, the car was impounded as part of a program intended to crack down on people who drink and drive. "We wanted to do what we can to discourage people from driving under the influence," she says. "Over the last year we impounded 4,466 vehicles. There's a storage fee of $10 a day for the first five days and $35 a day thereafter. We have collected about $1.5 million in fees. It's been a successful program."
Arredondo says Martsolf is responsible for the fees and fines because her name is still on the title. She explains that even though Martsolf has a handwritten bill of sale, it's not notarized, so there's no proof it's authentic. "According to our records, she's still listed as the co-owner with the secretary of state," says Arredondo. "That's the official record, so that's what we have to go on."
And what about the employees who allegedly told Martsolf and Ziaja the matter could be settled by paying $500?
"Well, I do know that she tried to send in a check in October, but I don't know why," says Arredondo. "I can tell you that there is no record of anyone telling her that. Frankly, I just can't imagine that someone would tell her that. I know our employees are told never to say anything like that. It's not city policy. The fine has to be paid in full--we won't take partial payment. My advice to anyone in a similar situation is to get something like that in writing."
Arredondo says this is just one of hundreds of sad stories city employees hear all the time. "You should have been there for the [parking-ticket] amnesty program," she says. "There were some unbelievable stories, some really sad stories. 'My wife did this.' Or 'My grandson. It's not me.' But really there's nothing the city can do--your name's on the ticket, you have to pay the fine. It's similar to this case. You see, once the process starts you can't just ignore it, you can't let it go. In a way, I'm rooting for this woman, because it's not like we want to punish anybody. But this is the program, and someone must pay."
Arredondo also notes that the car wasn't destroyed on December 20. In fact, it still hasn't been destroyed, and Arredondo doesn't know when it will be. It remains in storage, and as of January 6 the storage fee had climbed to over $7,000.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," says Martsolf. "I hired a lawyer, but I don't know what he can do. You'd think the city would have someone who would lend a sympathetic ear. You'd think they would have destroyed the car months ago when I said I didn't want it. I'm racking up a bill for a car I don't own, can't drive, and don't want. This is crazy."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.