City exceeding $250 maximum penalty against thousands of motorists, lawsuit says

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Mayoral hopeful Toni Preckwinkle says if elected, she will address inequities highlighted by a study released last year that showed city parking tickets and city sticker fines were more aggressively enforced against minorities. | File photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration was accused Tuesday of illegally assessing fines and penalties against “hundreds of thousands” of Chicago motorists by exceeding a $250 maximum established by state law.

The Illinois General Assembly established the $250 ceiling for both fines and late fees in exchange for shifting vehicle violations from the courts to city hearing officers, where the burden of proof is lower.

But a lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses the city of ignoring that cap for years on more than a dozen vehicle-related violations.

Among others, the violations include: parking in a fire lane, within 15 feet of a fire hydrant or in an alley; driving without a city sticker; or double-parking in the Central Business district.

The illegal fines and fees exceeding the $250 cap have been assessed for at least the last five years, attorneys said.

The Circuit Court suit asks a judge to void all of those “excessive” fines and late fees, refund the money to motorists who paid those fines and void the debt incurred by those who didn’t.

It also asks a judge to order the city to cease and desist until the municipal code is revised to abide by the state-imposed ceiling.

The lawsuit was filed by a law firm with a track record for winning similar judgments against the city: Myron M. Cherry & Associates LLP.

That’s the firm that forced the Emanuel administration to pay $38.75 million in refunds to motorists denied due process after being slapped with tickets based on information from red-light and speed cameras.

The same firm is trying to force the city to pay similar refunds to motorists ticketed for driving while talking on cell phones; those citations were being routed to administrative hearing officers, instead of to Traffic Court, where a pending lawsuit claims they belong.

Distracted-driving tickets are no longer resolved by administrative adjudication.

Attorney Jacie Zolna said he won’t know until the discovery process plays out — and a judge decides whether to grant his motion for class-action status — precisely how many motorists are entitled to refunds.

But he’s certain the number of motorists impacted is in the “hundreds of thousands,” meaning the refunds will likely rise well into the millions of dollars.

“The city’s entire municipal fine structure is broken. First, the city was operating its traffic cameras illegally for years. Then, it illegally funneled distracted-driving tickets to administrative courts. Now, it is likely that the majority of parking, standing and compliance violations carried oppressively high and illegal fines and penalties,” Zolna said.

“This is part three of the trilogy. The more we dug, the more problems we found. It is amazing that all of this was going on for years right under our noses. It is clear that only lawsuits will force the city to clean up its act.”

Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey refused to comment on the merits of a lawsuit he hasn’t seen.

But he said, “Under state law and its home rule powers, the City has the authority to regulate its streets and determine the fines and penalties for vehicle and traffic violations.”

Zolna said the city’s motive for going over the line is obvious.

At a time when Chicago taxpayers have endured a $2 billion avalanche of tax increases just to begin to solve the city’s $36 billion pension crisis, City Hall has become increasingly reliant on vehicle-related citations to balance the city budget.

“I have the Sun-Times article from April 17, 2018 [under the headline], `Aldermen move to triple fines for downtown double-parking.’ They bumped it from $100 to $300. Just like that, they tripled their revenue. That’s one of the many violations being illegally enforced through this system,” Zolna said.

“The city is constantly increasing fines. They’re constantly adding fines. They’re using the municipal fine structure as their own personal piggy-bank. They keep increasing fines because they’re in financial trouble. And the people who can’t afford it are getting hurt the worst with all of this stuff because they can’t afford a $300 ticket.”

A recent study by the Woodstock Institute noted that the city issued more than 3.6 million vehicle-related tickets last year — more-per-capita than both New York and Los Angeles.

Over the last decade, the city issued nearly 2.5 million tickets for motorists driving without a city sticker alone.

Last month, Emanuel was urged to go easier on parking and vehicle ticket scofflaws after a new report showed the city’s get-tough enforcement policies were having a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority communities.

Nearly 40 percent of the 1.2 million motorists denied due process after being slapped with tickets from red light and speed-cameras claimed their slice of a $38.75 million settlement pie.

Cash refunds went to 389,187 motorists who paid their tickets. The average refund check: $36.62.

In addition, 78,638 motorists who never paid their tickets had part of their debt forgiven. Added together, the cash refunds and debt relief averaged $58.50 per motorist.

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