A Circuit Court judge on Wednesday opened the door to voiding 1.5 million red-light and speed camera tickets by certifying as a class-action a lawsuit accusing Chicago of denying motorists their constitutional right to due process.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Jacie Zolna said Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy’s ruling could ultimately force Chicago taxpayers to refund $200 million in fines and late fees for tickets issued in error since the 2003 inception of a red-light camera program built on a $2 million bribery scandal.
“It’s the biggest ruling you’ll ever get in a case like this. We’re now not just representing two people, we’re representing 1.5 million people. It means we can seek relief — not just for our two clients but everyone impacted by this practice,” Zolna said.
“To certify a class, there has to be a common issue that applies equally. That’s clearly the case here. We proved that they didn’t provide the required notice to everyone. They sped up the liability for everyone and doubled the fines prematurely for everyone. The next step is to seek a ruling that voids these tickets for everyone.”
City Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said: “While we respectfully disagree with today’s ruling on class certification, it only addresses a procedural issue.
“It does not address the merits of the plaintiff’s claims, or the facts and the law we believe make those claims legally insufficient. Among other things, plaintiffs do not dispute that they violated the law and that they received notices of, and the opportunity to contest, these violations.”
Earlier this year, Kennedy accused City Hall of violating the “fundamental principles of justice, equity and good conscience” by failing to send those drivers a second notice of their violations.
The Emanuel administration further erred by imposing $100 late fees when payment was not received within 21 days of a liability determination in some cases — even after the law was changed in 2012 to require a 25-day grace period.
Technically, Kennedy at that point simply rejected the city’s motion to dismiss the case and kept alive a lawsuit Zolna filed on behalf of a pair of ticketed motorists.
But the wording of her ruling was so strong, there was little doubt thousands of red-light and speed camera tickets issued since 2003 would ultimately be nullified.
Wednesday’s ruling certifying the lawsuit as a class-action was a pivotal next step.
In September, the City Council approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to give 1.5 million impacted motorists a second chance to challenge their tickets.
But, Zolna filed yet another lawsuit this week challenging the do-over on grounds that it violates “virtually every procedural requirement” of the Illinois Vehicle Code and “completely undermines its purpose to ensure the ‘fair and efficient’ adjudication” of speed and red light camera violations.
Corporation Counsel Steve Patton has argued that the do-over hearings would “bolster our defense” of the pending lawsuit and “form the basis for a fair and reasonable settlement.”
But, he has emphatically maintained that a “procedural failure does not render a ticket invalid” and that there is no justification for blanket refunds.
“Those tickets are valid. The violation occurred. The red light was run. Somebody sped. Unless and until they go the Department of Administrative Hearings and show that’s not the case,” Patton told aldermen last month.
“What we’re talking about is a subsequent procedural error. And it shouldn’t be the opportunity for a gotcha to have a windfall for thousands and thousands of people to avoid any liability and get a refund.”