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Emanuel backs watered-down plan to tow litterers

Mayor Rahm Emanuel left is backing an anti-littering proposal from Ald. Howard Brookins (21st).

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, left, is backing an anti-littering proposal from Ald. Howard Brookins (21st).

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Updated: September 7, 2013 6:12AM

Arguing that trash “belongs in a garbage can, not on the streets of Chicago,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday embraced a watered-down plan to seize the wheels of motorists who open their windows and dump their trash on Chicago streets.

The mayor signed off on the controversial anti-littering crackdown after its sponsor, Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), agreed to soften the ordinance considerably.

Instead of towing every vehicle used for the driver version of fly-dumping, Chicago Police would have the “discretion” to tow. They wouldn’t have to penalize every single litterer.

And instead of dramatically increasing the fines — to $1,500 a pop — Brookins has agreed to raise the minimum fine from $50 to $150. The maximum fine would be $1,500, but that would not be the penalty for every trash-dumping motorist.

With those changes, Emanuel signed off on an ordinance that appeared to be going nowhere.

“For far too long in many communities across Chicago, the sight of litter and trash on the streets has become too familiar. This is an issue that affects all Chicagoans because littering has a distinct and deleterious effect upon our overall quality of life,” Emanuel wrote in a letter to Brookins released by the mayor’s office.

“I am happy to join you and community leaders as we take another step to fight those who create unsafe and unhealthy neighborhoods. That is why I welcome and support your ordinance to penalize those who throw litter onto our streets and I look forward to working with community leaders throughout Chicago to pass an anti-littering ordinance.”

But the mayor’s letter also made it clear why Brookins’ ordinance was softened.

“I fundamentally believe that this is an issue of personal responsibility and accountability, which also must be balanced by proportionality and fairness,” the letter states.

“I am encouraged to see you and many [others] … say loud and clear that they will no longer tolerate this behavior. We all agree that trash belongs in a garbage can — not on the streets of Chicago.”

Brookins, chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said he agreed to replace the towing mandate with, what he called “permissive towing” after discussions with the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation, which is responsible for towing.

“They raised some concerns that, if this thing were significantly enforced, they wouldn’t have the manpower to tow all of these cars. It made sense to give law enforcement discretion,” Brookins said.

“Just like seat belt enforcement and certain places where they do speed traps, we can convince the Police Department to do enforcement — specific missions with respect to littering and, at least during those missions, we can convince the Police Department to tow the car.”

As for the reduced fines, Brookins said, “A lot of my colleagues who were uncomfortable with a mandatory minimum of $1,500 will be OK with increasing the minimum and raising the maximum.”

Last month, Jeff Baker of the Committee for a Better Chicago, warned the City Council’s Finance Committee that Brookins’ original anti-littering ordinance would give police “another tool to demonize, imprison and punish black men.”

As a criminal defense attorney, Brookins reiterated Monday that he understands “the plight of many African-American men, who find themselves being stopped for driving while black.”

But he said, “If police are after you, they’ll be able to use any of 100 different ordinances against you. But clearly, this one is wholly avoidable. If you’re not discarding trash out of your window, there’s no reason to stop you or profile you. I can’t buy into the notion that young black men can’t control themselves from throwing trash and paper out on the street.”

Vehicle impoundment — and the hefty towing and storage fees that come with it — has become a catch-all penalty for an array of offenses ranging from prostitution to loud music playing and curfew violations.

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