Bart Johnson

Bart Johnson, of rural Hillsdale, ended his contentious legal battle to get his truck out of impound, taken in what he says was a wrongly brought civil forfeiture case against him. He got his truck back Thursday.

ROCK ISLAND -- Outside Quad City Towing Inc. Thursday morning, Bart Johnson waited as his pickup truck swung into view.

A towing company employee slid out from behind the wheel, letting the 21-year-old from Hillsdale climb in and conduct a quick inspection to make sure everything was as he'd left it over five months ago.

"It's over," he said.

In September, he was stopped by a Rock Island County Sheriff's deputy for improper lane usage and told he was driving on a suspended license. Citing that offense in a forfeiture case filed a month later, prosecutors sought to keep the vehicle.

Mr. Johnson contested the allegation, with the case ultimately ending this week in a settlement agreement that let him get his truck back, if he paid $500 to Quad City Towing Inc. for towing and storage charges. 

Mr. Johnson said the initial plan was to settle the case Tuesday, but when he tried to pay in cash, he was told he instead needed a traveler's or cashier's check. In the time since his truck was seized, Mr. Johnson said his driver's license had expired, so he also had to make an extra trip to renew it. 

Finally, on Thursday -- with a new driver's license in hand -- he returned to the courthouse and waited several hours for a break in the busy court schedule to sign the settlement order in front of Assistant State's Attorney Justin Umlah.

Mr. Johnson said the last  few days had been "hectic" with little time to imagine what it would be like to have his truck back. 

Shortly before 11 a.m., with the court order signed, he showed his driver's license to a clerk at the Rock Island County Sheriff's Office and handed over the check. Then he could get his truck.

After flashing his driver's license again at Quad City Towing Inc., Mr. Johnson waited anxiously as his truck was driven around to the front of the building.

"I can see the finish line," he said, breaking into a grin.

Mr. Johnson said he believed forfeiture laws need to be "fine-tuned" so average people can more easily navigate the complicated process. He said that without the free help of Cambridge-based attorney Larry Vandersnick, "I probably wouldn't have it (the truck) back."

When prosecutors first filed the forfeiture complaint, they alleged Mr. Johnson's license had been suspended since a DUI arrest three months prior. Mr. Johnson pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor offense in July and, as part of an agreement, was placed on one year of court supervision and had the suspension of his driver's license rescinded.

Mr. Johnson said he kept driving, believing he legally could. But when he was stopped for driving on a suspended license, he learned paperwork from the DUI hearing was not sent by the clerk's office to the Illinois Secretary of State.

Rock Island County State's Attorney John McGehee maintains Mr. Johnson should have waited for written confirmation that his driving privileges were valid before driving. Defendants usually are advised of that at the time of a plea, Mr. McGehee said.

The suspended license charge eventually was dropped and Mr. Johnson pleaded guilty to the traffic citation for improper lane usage. 

Mr. McGehee said Thursday's settlement was reached after a careful review of the facts, including Mr. Johnson's prior drinking-related driving history. Mr. McGehee said facts of the DUI case -- including police finding Mr. Johnson inside his car, in a ditch, with alcohol in his truck -- came into play when it was decided to pursue the civil forfeiture case. 

"This was a message that was sent to him that he really needs to be extremely careful," Mr. McGehee said. "And hopefully he got the message that he can't drink and drive."

Mr. Vandersnick -- out of state this week, but kept abreast of developments by phone -- said he gave Mr. McGehee "credit" for being willing to review the case and reach an agreement, saving Mr. Johnson from additional months without a vehicle.

A former prosecutor and judge, Mr. Vandersnick said he is working to draft legislation aimed at revising forfeiture laws in Illinios. The legislation, he said, proposes shifting the burden of proof in forfeiture cases from property owners to the state. Another proposal, he said, would speed up forfeiture cases to avoid seized property being kept for months before a court resolution is reached.

The proposed legislation also seeks to reduce incentivizing forfeitures by decreasing how much of the proceeds go to law enforcement, instead requiring a larger portion go to the state or county governments. 

Back at Quad City Towing, the time was fast approaching noon. Mr. Johnson, a farmhand in Barstow who usually starts his day at 7 a.m., said he figured there wasn't much point in trying to get to work.

"That's enough for one day," he said as he got in his truck, pulled out of the parking lot and eased the vehicle back onto the road.

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