Chicago violated the “fundamental principles of justice, equity and good conscience” by denying due process to motorists issued red-light camera and speed-camera tickets, a judge has ruled, declaring those tickets “void.”
In a harshly worded ruling handed down late Friday, Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy kept alive a lawsuit seeking hundreds of millions dollars in refunds for motorists ticketed since 2003 after City Hall “skipped a step” mandated by the city’s own municipal code.
The lawsuit filed nearly a year ago accused the Emanuel administration of violating the requirement to issue a second notice of violation before issuing a determination of liability against motorists issued speed-camera and red-light camera tickets.
The suit further alleged that the city failed to specify the make of the vehicle and that city notices indicate that late penalties will be assessed if payment is not received within 21 days of a liability determination, when a 25-day grace period is required by law.
In rejecting the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Kennedy upheld two of those three arguments. The wording of her ruling was so strong, there is little doubt thousands of tickets will ultimately be nullified, potentially forcing the city to refund hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and penalties already paid.
“The second notice provision is designed to protect a non-responding violator’s right to contest a violation before determination of liability issues. This right is generally injured by a directory reading,” the ruling states.
“Therefore, the term ‘shall’ means mandatory in the second notice provisions. . . . Because the second notice requirement at issue is mandatory under the [municipal code of Chicago], the determinations of liability are void and subject to collateral attack.”
Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said the city “continues to believe that the plaintiffs’ claims are legally insufficient” and that no refunds are due.
“The plaintiffs do not dispute that they violated the law and that they received notices of these violations. It is the city’s position that the plaintiffs are not entitled to any recovery, let alone any refunds,” McCaffrey wrote in an emailed statement.
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.”
“The alleged practice of accelerating late fees without statutory compliance is sufficient to show a violation of the fundamental principles of justice, equity and good conscience,” the judge wrote.
Armed with Friday’s ruling, plaintiffs’ attorney Jacie Zolna will now forge ahead with his request for class-action status for thousands of motorists similarly ticketed and harmed since the first red-light camera was installed in 2003.
Zolna is also seeking an injunction that would prevent the city from collecting on or otherwise enforcing outstanding speed- and red-light camera violations until the noticing mistakes are remedied.
Months of discovery lie ahead to determine precisely how many motorists are eligible for refunds. But Zolna said he’s confident that the cash-strapped city will ultimately be forced to cough up tens of millions of dollars in fines and late fees, potentially with interest.
“The city expects its citizens to follow the law — so much so that they’re putting cameras everywhere to watch us. Yet, they’re not following the law themselves. It’s a very ironic situation,” Zolna said Monday.
“Just because you get a traffic ticket doesn’t mean you violated the law or you’re liable,” he said. “This system was supposed to be set up to give people adequate notice and a reasonable amount of time to try and contest the tickets. They’re shortening that up. They’re not sending the right notice, which makes it harder for people to contest. They’re not giving people the 14-day grace period.”
Zolna said the city’s decision to thumb its nose at its own due process laws is astounding, considering the fact that the nation’s largest red-light camera program was built on a $2 million bribery scandal.
Last month, the former CDOT managing deputy who oversaw the program was convicted of taking up to $2 million in bribes from Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Systems.
During the trial, federal prosecutors proved that John Bills was getting a kickback of up to $2,000 for every new camera added to a network that became the largest in the nation.
Even after a 20 percent reduction, much of it ordered by embattled incumbent Rahm Emanuel during last year’s heated mayoral campaign, Chicago has 306 red-light cameras at 151 intersections.
“The judge said tickets issued in this manner are void and that the city should not retain the money they received from people. It’s really just a road map to end this case. Their defenses are insufficient. I don’t anticipate there even having to be a jury,” said Zolna, of Myron M. Cherry & Associates.
“The next step for us is to determine how much these payments amount to and how long the city will have to refund this money. It’s going to be a very substantial amount,” he said. “From published reports at the time we filed this lawsuit a year ago, there were $600 million in fines and penalties from either speed camera tickets or red-light camera tickets since the inception of this program. Our suit will most likely cover a decent chunk of that — in the neighborhood of one-third.”