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Why are the police picking on Terry Lee?

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By Ben Joravsky

One day last month, Terry Lee found himself sitting on a hard cot in a small cell in the police lockup at Belmont and Western.

His crime? Operating a secondhand sporting goods store without a secondhand sporting goods license. "I still can't believe this happened," says Lee, who owns the Chicago Sports and Bike Exchange, at 4159 N. Western. "I'm not the kind of guy who breaks the law. I don't even get speeding tickets. Why would they come down so hard on a guy like me?"

A photographer by training, Lee says he bought the store in April 1999 hoping to make some money and have some fun. "It's capitalism in its most basic state, the essence of the market," says Lee. "It's surprising what rolls in here--skates, tennis rackets, balls, bikes, you name it. Even more surprising is that everything sells. The seduction of the business is the seduction of the deal. Let's face it, everyone wants to make a deal."

His idea wasn't so much to upscale the store (it's still wonderfully cluttered) as to organize it. He grouped items by activities, opened a Web site, and bought ads in the local papers. "The previous owner didn't have shelving--everything was on the floor," says Lee. "I price things. I group things. I've created aisles so you can walk around. It was going great. We're a small, locally owned shop in the age of sports giants. People like that. I got welcomes from almost everyone."

Everyone, that is, except the local police. "Soon after I opened, a burglary unit from the 19th District came by and wanted to see my buy records," says Lee. "They said they wanted to develop a relationship with me and that I could be unknowingly buying stolen goods. I was told that to protect myself I needed to create a record. I needed the bill of sale from everyone who sold me anything. I said 'no problem.'"

As time went by he noticed the police hovering. "I'd look out the window and there'd be two plainclothes cops in an unmarked squad car watching my shop with binoculars," says Lee. "I'm thinking, this is strange. Maybe they think we're fencing stuff out the door. But I'm not like that. I'm keeping receipts of everything. I'm showing them my books."

The surveillance intensified as the summer wore on. "We had cops from different districts coming in and flashing badges and accusing me of knowingly buying stolen goods," says Lee. "I'm not naive. I understand that there are thieves who will try to sell me stolen property. But my method of discrimination is to look at identification. I make a receipt for everything. Actually, I'm a resource for the police. Because there's a record for everything I buy or sell. If they're suspicious about people, I can lead them to the bad guys."

Apparently, some local police didn't see it that way. "It was like they didn't want to cooperate with me," says Lee. "I had some police come in here and they showed me a list of people who they said were known for selling stolen goods. I wanted to copy the list, but they wouldn't let me copy it. They said it was police records. I'm thinking, well, then why are you showing me the list? Why are you being so vague? Either we're going to work together or you're just harassing me."

In the meantime, the City Council passed an ordinance intended to crack down on the fencing of stolen sporting goods. Ironically, the law's sponsor was Alderman Eugene Schulter, in whose 47th Ward Lee resides and works. "The idea for the ordinance came from 19th District commander John Minogue," says Schulter. "He explained to me that there's a direct correlation between theft and the selling of valuable items at secondhand stores."

The ordinance requires secondhand sports shop owners to obtain a special license and to do things Lee says he's been doing almost from the start. "They have to get a copy of the seller's driver's license or some appropriate identification," says Schulter. "They have to itemize what they sell and what they buy. Our goal wasn't to penalize any one individual. It was designed to help the public and those individuals engaged in this business."

Shop owners affected by the new ordinance have been notified that they should apply for the secondhand dealer's license when the time comes to renew their general business license. On January 28 Lee went to City Hall to take care of both pieces of business. "I paid $500 for the secondhand dealer's license and $125 to renew my business license," he says. "I figured, great, I'm in business, right?"

Wrong. "February 3 rolls around and three cops from burglary, the same guys I've known now for nine months, come into my store and say, 'Where's the secondhand license?' I wasn't there. But Jeff [Babcock], who works for me, calls me. I rush in. I say, 'What's the problem? I'll show you everything. Here's my license,' and I hand them the receipt I got from City Hall showing I've paid for both licenses. Well, they look and look and look and then they tell me this is not the license. This is just a receipt. They called their lieutenant. And he comes down. By now there are six or seven cops here. I'm not kidding, we have a lieutenant in uniform hemming and hawing and discussing this like it's the biggest matter the police department's facing. I'm thinking, don't these guys have anything better to do?

"Finally they write me a ticket for not having the secondhand license. I said, 'But I'm in good faith. I've applied. I'm cooperating with the city.' I mean, you should see what they make me go through to get this license. I have to show banking statements for six months and sales statements. I've shown them everything. But the cop says 'nope' and they wrote me up."

A week later the police returned. "I was out running errands when Jeff gives me a desperate call. He's says they're going to throw him into jail. I get the police on the phone and say, 'I'll meet you at the station.' So I rushed over to Belmont and Western just as they brought Jeff in in a paddy wagon. They charged me with operating a business without a secondhand dealer's license and for not keeping records, even though I had been keeping records."

The police spent two hours booking Lee. Then they put him in jail. "To this day I still don't know why they had to jail me. But they did. They told me to empty out my pockets and take off my shoelaces. And then they put me in a cell. It was very depressing. It was a small, windowless cell with incandescent light, a metal cot, and a toilet. I sat on the bed and tried to figure out what was going on. Time just slowed down. It was very boring, actually. I asked the police, 'Do you have something to read?' They said, 'You'll find something.' Sure enough, there was all this gang graffiti on the wall. Someone must have had a cigarette lighter because they had used it to burn in their letters. I guess the police didn't do a good job of emptying that guy's pockets.

"Anyway, I read the graffiti over and over until I knew it by heart. And then I just sort of fell asleep."

He figures he was in the cell for over an hour before they let him out. "My wife had come down to the station and she was hysterical," says Lee. "The police told her that this was bigger than the license issue, that there was an ongoing investigation. But I don't know what they're talking about. No one has ever told me about an investigation. If there are charges against me, I don't know what they are. I think it's more that someone--and I don't know who--wants to impress me with their power."

On February 29 he had a hearing before an administrative law officer. The charges for not keeping records were dropped after he showed the hearing officer the records he'd been keeping all along. He was required to pay a $200 fine (plus $25 for court costs) for operating without a secondhand dealer's license.

"The only comment we have is that he was issued citations twice and was arrested once," says MariaEllena Dyess, a police spokeswoman.

But isn't it a bit excessive to jail a merchant for not having all the appropriate licenses?

"He has to comply with the law," says Dyess.

City law department spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle says that arresting Lee is "a discretionary matter left to the police."

It's a point on which Schulter agrees, though he's a little more sympathetic. "I do know Terry and his wife and I know that they're outstanding people," says Schulter. "I feel bad about this because he's a decent guy. But I can't comment about the arrests because I don't know all the facts."

On Monday Lee finally heard the charges against him. According to a letter he received from the city, he "knowingly possessed stolen property"--two bicycles and a baby jogger. Lee says he vaguely remembers the police confiscating the items last June. "I'm surprised they're making an issue out of it seven months later when they didn't make an issue out of it then."

He will answer the charges at a March 20 hearing, after which the city will decide whether to allow him to remain in business. "This has been a nightmare," he says. "I was operating in compliance. Then they suddenly pass a new law and I'm operating in noncompliance, even though I've done everything to get in compliance and I'm doing everything the new law requires me to do. Meanwhile, I have a store filled with merchandise the city says I can't sell. I can't even sell a used golf ball. It's like they're trying to take a legitimate store and just run it out of business."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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