Mayor Rahm Emanuel is offering a do-over to 1.5 million drivers hit with red-light and speed camera tickets in a “desperation move” aimed at bolstering his case against a lawsuit with the potential to force the city to refund $200 million in fines and late fees.
Acknowledging that the city made a mistake by failing to send those people a second notice of their violations, Emanuel wants to give drivers another opportunity to challenge, and potentially overturn, tickets dating back five years.
If the Chicago City Council approves the mayor’s ordinance, 1.5 million drivers slapped mostly with red-light tickets, as well as a smaller number of speed-camera tickets, between March 23, 2010, and May 14, 2015, will get the second notice they should have received the first time.
Those who choose to do so within 30 days will have the opportunity to appear before an administrative hearing officer and challenge their tickets on the grounds they were issued in error.
The five-year window is tied to the statute of limitations and the date the city eliminated the second-notice requirement in yet another, after-the-fact attempt to avoid liability.
The ordinance would also allow roughly 5,000 drivers who paid late fees between July 1, 2012, and May 31, 2015 — before the late-fee trigger was stretched from 21 days to 25 days — to get refunds for $100 penalties. They would have 60 days to make that request.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Jacie Zolna called the mayor’s ordinance a “desperation move” that won’t work.
“They’re trying to avoid the consequences of operating the camera program illegally for the last decade,” Zolna said. “But our justice system is designed to hold those who violate the law accountable. It does not allow those in power who get caught breaking the law to simply change the rules.
“The court already ruled that, if the city failed to provide the proper notice, the tickets are void. Nothing the city tries to do after the fact will change that. I’m open and all about trying to reach a settlement. But one that involves the city not paying a dime to the people they harmed will never happen.”
Zolna questioned why Chicago aldermen would approve the proposed ordinance. And even if they do, he predicted few drivers would bother to take the city up on its offer of a rehearing.
“I don’t expect the city to pay a dime to anyone under this proposed law,” he said. “They’re gonna make people jump through hoops. … They’re gonna send the notice they never sent — in some cases five years after the fact. Does that make any sense?”
Steve Patton, City Hall’s corporation counsel, said the ordinance could “bolster our defense” of the pending lawsuit and “form the basis for a fair and reasonable settlement.” Patton said there is no justification for blanket refunds.
“We don’t think the city owes a refund to every person who got a red-light ticket simply because they didn’t get a second notice,” he said. “That would result in a windfall to individuals who violated the law and were rightly issued a ticket. What about all of the people who paid after the first notice? They didn’t receive a second notice because they paid before the trigger.
“There was a procedural step missed. We’re now providing that procedural step. We think that would bolster our defense that these tickets are valid and are properly owed. But the city’s position is and continues to be that these are valid tickets.”
Earlier this year, a judge accused City Hall of violating the “fundamental principles of justice, equity and good conscience” by issuing thousands of red-light and speed-camera tickets. The drivers who sued said they were denied due process because they were not given a second notice.
Cook County Circuit Judge Kathleen Kennedy rejected the city’s motion to dismiss the case and kept alive a lawsuit Zolna filed on behalf of three ticketed drivers. But the wording of her ruling was so strong there was little doubt thousands of red-light and speed-camera tickets issued since 2003 ultimately would be nullified, potentially forcing the city to refund hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and penalties.
Kennedy ruled that the three named plaintiffs in the case — Delyn McKenzie-Lopez, Themasha Simpson and Erica Lieschke — had “sufficiently alleged facts showing that the city’s retention of payments from determinations made without a second notice violates the fundamental principles of justice, equity and good conscience.”
Days after Kennedy’s ruling, Zolna accused Emanuel of changing the rules in the middle of the game in a move, he branded an “admission of guilt” that strengthens his claim to refunds for drivers ticketed since 2003.
Without fanfare, Emanuel asked the City Council to amend Chicago’s municipal code to drop the step that Zolna’s lawsuit had accused City Hall of skipping.
No longer would the city be required to send a second notice of violation prior to issuing a determination of liability against drivers given tickets for speed-camera and red-light camera violation.