CHICAGO HEIGHTS, ILLINOIS – As Kathie LaFond’s son was dying in a car crash, she was under arrest at
the nearby Chicago Heights police station, where she was told to sign
forms saying her Chevy had been towed.
She would soon learn that her car was actually wrapped around a tree, her 5-year-old son dead at the scene.
Weeks after the boy’s funeral, the south suburb ordered LaFond to pay a
$550 fine for the impound that never occurred, records show.
It was an unusually aggressive take on a trend in law enforcement to
collect fees from arrests involving vehicles. And the ensuing debate
over LaFond’s fee offers another chapter in a high-profile controversy
in which Chicago Heights police let an allegedly drunken man drive
LaFond’s only child to his death.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” LaFond said. “My car was never impounded that
night. Why should I have to pay for something that took my kid’s life
The fees themselves aren’t unusual, but carry their own controversy. A
recent Tribune investigation found that more than 100 area departments
charge administrative fees — often $500 or more — for impounding
vehicles allegedly used in crimes. After a federal judge questioned the
constitutionality of some tows, a third of the suburbs softened their
laws to let friends or relatives drive cars from arrest scenes, instead
of being towed.
In those cases where friends or relatives drive cars away, no fees are charged because no tow happened.
At least, that’s what happens in the other suburbs surveyed by the Tribune.
But not in Chicago Heights.
Even though its forms say the fee is for impounding, the city says the
fee is really for the arrest. It’s considered a separate sanction for
any vehicle owner whose car is tied to specific crimes, ranging from
soliciting a prostitute to driving on a suspended license.
The goal, officials say, is to collect cash for the blue-collar suburb while keeping criminals at bay.
“It’s a way of trying to discipline people for the commissions of
wrongdoing regardless of whether the car is towed or not,” said TJ
Somer, the suburb’s corporation counsel.
To LaFond’s lawyer, Mark Horwitz, the policy seems purely about
collecting cash, not only from people never towed, but even from someone
such as LaFond, whose child died from the alleged negligence of the
“The thing I find repulsive is: You have a child who is dead. You have a
mother who lost her child,” he said. “Yet you have a municipality
sending a bill out when they clearly know that car was never impounded.
It hit a tree.”
A boy’s death
LaFond, 23, was arrested early one morning in May on Chicago Heights’
Main Street for driving on a suspended license. The stop began a series
of events that led to her son’s death less than an hour later.
Her boyfriend, Cecil Conner, then 22, needed a ride home from a
party. She said she didn’t want him driving drunk. So, with no one to
baby-sit her son, Michael Langford Jr.,
she strapped him into his booster seat and drove to retrieve Conner.
On their way to drop off Conner at his Steger home, she was stopped
about 2:35 a.m. by a Chicago Heights officer for not using a turn
signal. Discovering she wasn’t properly licensed, the officer arrested
her for a crime that qualified her car to be towed to an impound lot.
The conversation that took place during that stop is now at the heart of a lawsuit LaFond filed against the suburb.
She said she begged the officer not to let Conner drive the car because
he was drunk. The suburb maintains LaFond made no such plea and the
officer had no indication Conner was drunk, so he was allowed to drive
LaFond was taken away in handcuffs to the police station. That was
common procedure area-wide for handling drivers with suspended or
revoked licenses. But what happened next wasn’t.
After Conner drove off with the boy, LaFond sat in the station in her
grocery store uniform, at times handcuffed to a wooden bench. She was
there until police decided to release her on her promise to show up in
court to face the criminal charge.
It’s unclear exactly when she left, but before she could go she had to
sign a few forms, including at least one indicating her car had been
impounded, and thereby qualified for the $500 fee.
LaFond said that as she left, she heard sirens — apparently rescue crews
heading two miles south into Steger, where Conner had veered their
Cavalier into a tree.
Rescue crews found the child lifeless. Reports show that Conner
slurred his words and smelled of alcohol. A hospital lab later
determined his blood-alcohol level was 2 1/2 times the legal limit,
prompting his arrest for felony DUI charges.
An unusual policy
Although the tragedy became headline news across the region, the
impoundment forms from her arrest were treated like those of any other
case, Somer said.
LaFond wasn’t the first made to sign such forms without having a vehicle
towed. The Tribune found that during that same month, of the 152
charged impound fees, seven others hadn’t had their cars towed.
Michael Kellogg was one of them — pulled over for driving on a suspended
license. He said his wife, a licensed driver, drove the car away. He
appealed the fine to the suburb’s administrative hearing officer without
“He (the hearing officer) said everybody pays for an impounded car,”
Kellogg said. “Now it’s in collections, and I have to pay it in
That’s unlike any other town surveyed by the Tribune.
Officials elsewhere justify the fees as a way to recover police costs of
arrests that involve time-consuming tows. If there’s no tow, there’s no
Chicago Heights, however, views the $500 fee as a fine, Somer said. The tow is irrelevant. To handle the costs of processing the arrest, the suburb can tack on another $50 fee.
It’s unclear how much the town has collected from these no-tow impounds.
Comparable data was available only for May, showing about 5 percent of
the impound cases didn’t involve a tow. If the suburb averaged eight
cases a month for a year, it could collect $48,000, assuming it charged
just $500 fees.
But the $500 fees are doubled if two crimes are alleged from the same
arrest. That’s what happened to Jim Reichert, whose granddaughter’s
boyfriend was arrested in March for drunken driving and driving on a
suspended license in Reichert’s SUV.
The SUV wasn’t towed — the granddaughter drove it away — but Reichert got a bill in the mail.
The Crete man reluctantly paid the $1,000 fine, plus a $50 administrative fee.
“It sounds like a scam,” he said.
The $550 bill
On the back of an impound form LaFond signed, it said she had 15 days to
file an appeal. If not, she’d automatically be found liable for the
When she didn’t respond, the suburb’s hearing officer automatically found her in default.
Somer said it was not out of malice, but merely standard procedure in
such cases. The unpaid debt, as is routine, was sent to a collection
agency. He said the suburb sympathizes with LaFond’s loss, but the law
is the law.
“Kathie LaFond, number one, went to collections because she never showed
up for the hearing she was given notice of and defended herself,” Somer
LaFond’s lawyer also believes it’s not out of malice. Still, he said, it
doesn’t make it right, not only for LaFond but for others charged fees
without being towed.
“I don’t think they’re piling up on Kathie per se. I just think this is an incident where they got caught.”
LaFond said she was so eager to get out of the station that night in May
she never read what she was signing. In the aftermath of dealing with
her loss, she hadn’t read the forms since. She said she didn’t even know
the suburb was trying to collect cash from her until told this month by
She is awaiting a November court date on the criminal portion of the
suspended-license arrests in Chicago Heights and an earlier one in
Olympia Fields, misdemeanors that can carry their own fines or jail
time. Conner remains jailed in Will County, awaiting trial on the felony
LaFond said she has yet to get a bill demanding the $550. It’s unclear
if Conner, as a co-owner of the Cavalier, has gotten a letter either —
his lawyers did not return calls for comment. But LaFond is the only one
of the pair listed in Chicago Heights records as owing the money.
No matter what happens, she said she won’t pay any bill.
The suburb said it’s not sure what action the collection agency will
take, but it won’t drop the fine. Somer said it’s up to LaFond and her
lawyers to ask a judge to make the suburb drop it.
But Somer said that the Tribune review of its no-tow fee policy has prompted one change.
Chicago Heights will rewrite the forms to note the fee applies even to those not towed.