Settlement of red-light camera snafu to send refunds to 1.2M motorists

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A $38.75 million settlement has been proposed that would mean refunds to about 1.2 million motorists who were denied due process after being ticketed by city red-light or speed cameras. | File photo

Chicago will pay 50 percent refunds to 1.2 million motorists denied due process after receiving red-light camera and speed camera tickets, under a $38.75 million settlement that outraged an influential alderman.

As part of the landmark settlement, the city also has agreed not to use any of the 1.5 million tickets issued over a five-year period in suspending driver’s license or booting vehicles.

The settlement includes $26.75 million in cash refunds to motorists who paid their fines and $12 million in debt forgiven from motorists who never paid their tickets.

“In light of some court rulings in the litigation and the potential for a significant award of damages in excess of $250 million, we are recommending that the City Council approve this settlement in order to minimize the risk and financial exposure to the taxpayers,” said Corporation Counsel Ed Siskel.

A judge has ruled that the city denied due process to 1.2 million motorists 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.

Publicly, plaintiffs’ attorney Jacie Zolna has spent months demanding $200 million. Zolna said Thursday he agreed to accept less than 20 percent of that amount to avoid a protracted court battle.

The settlement was first disclosed by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed.

“I agreed to it because it’s a ton of money. It’s the most I could get out of the city. … The city has refused to put up money in any of these cases,” Zolna said.

“There’s been a dozen other lawsuits, and they’ve won every single one. The net result could have been nothing, and that could have happened five or six years from now. … The fact that this one stuck — and they came up with close to $40 million. People were outraged. Their fines doubled quicker than they should have. They were found liable quicker than they should have. It’s about justice, and that’s what we got.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, was outraged that Chicago taxpayers were on the hook for nearly $40 million because somebody in the City Hall bureaucracy dropped the ball on due process.

“Someone didn’t do their job or didn’t do their job accurately. … Some heads should roll. It’s not right. It’s unjust. Taxpayers of this city cannot continue to bear this kind of burden,” Beale said.

“This program was put in place for revenue reasons. It was not put in place for public safety as it was sold to us. If it was truly about public safety, why were there no cameras downtown? They were all out in the community. The people who could least afford to pay, hopefully, will get some of this money back.”

The 1.2 million impacted motorists together received 1.5 million red-light and speed camera tickets between 2010 and 2015, when the rules were changed to guarantee due process.

That’s somewhere between one-third of and one half of all red-light and speed cameras tickets issued during that same period.

The rest of the tickets issued during that period do not apply, since many of them were paid or challenged or motorists received the proper notice. The settlement assumes that roughly half of the motorists offered refunds will not claim them.

“Everyone can get up to 50 percent of their money back. Everyone who puts in a claim will get that money. If you have one ticket for $100 ticket, you’ll get 50 bucks back. If someone has three or four tickets and $300 or $400, you’ll get half of that,” Zolna said.

“Within a few months, they’ll get a notice in the mail with a claim form and an envelope. They just need to confirm their address and send it back in.”

The settlement is expected to be approved by the City Council’s Finance Committee on Monday and the full Council on Wednesday. After that, it needs to be approved by the judge.

Impacted motorists then have to be notified by mail and given the opportunity to opt in or out. Siskel said it would be “months” before motorists receive cash refunds. The city also intends to set up a website to get the word out.

Almost as important as the refunds is the city’s promise not to use any of those 1.5 million tickets when it comes to determining whose car gets a Denver boot and whose driver’s license gets suspended.

“A significant portion of the people who are in this class called me because they have a boot on their car or they’re getting threatening letters that their driver’s license is gonna be suspended,” Zolna said.

“If that’s taken away from someone, how are they gonna get to work? How are they gonna go to school? How are they gonna drop their kids off? So, wiping those 1.5 million tickets off the books to do that is a big deal.”

Last fall, the City Council approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to give 1.2 million impacted motorists a second chance to challenge their tickets.

But Zolna, who filed the original suit that was subsequently certified as a class-action, filed yet another suit challenging the do-over.

When the City Council approved the new hearings, then- Corporation Counsel Steve Patton assured aldermen it would “bolster our defense” of the pending lawsuit and “form the basis for a fair and reasonable settlement.”

Patton emphatically maintained that a “procedural failure does not render a ticket invalid” and that there was no justification for blanket refunds.

Zolna branded the do-over “too little, too late” and “another chapter” in a red-light saga built on a $2 million bribery scandal.

On Thursday, he claimed victory in achieving what he called the “largest settlement ever challenging a traffic program” in the the United States.

“They tried to pay us some money and settle the case by just giving people that second hearing. And I told you underline exclamation point I’m not gonna settle it until I get some money for the people. And that’s what we did,” Zolna said Thursday.

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