Distracted driving lawsuit against the city gets stronger

Internal documents show the city shifted distracted driving tickets from administrative hearings to Traffic Court in 2015, but spent two more years collecting $3.2 million in fines from motorists whose tickets were issued before then.

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Chicago City Hall

Chicago City Hall

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

In August 2015, Chicago quietly shifted distracted driving tickets from administrative hearings to Traffic Court after being advised by its own attorneys that motorists caught talking on cellphones and texting behind the wheel were being denied due process.

Why, then, did City Hall continue to collect $3.2 million in fines from motorists whose tickets issued before then were “illegally” routed to administrative hearing officers and use those citations to suspend drivers licenses, deny permits and prohibit city employment for two more years?

Those are the questions posed Wednesday by attorney Jacie Zolna of Myron M. Cherry Associates after the latest legal maneuvering in a lawsuit with potential to trigger millions in refunds to motorists deprived of their legal rights.

Zolna is the attorney who forced former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 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.

In August 2017, he took aim at distracted driving tickets. State law required them to go to Traffic Court; that lawsuit accused the city of sending those tickets to administrative hearing officers instead, for one reason: to allow the city to keep the fines instead of sharing 55 percent of the revenue with the county and state.

Now, ongoing discovery in the case has turned up several pieces of evidence that Zolna views as smoking guns:

• An August 6, 2015 internal memo to Chicago Police officers directing them to stop issuing “administrative notices of violation” and start issuing traffic tickets to motorists caught texting and talking on cellphones while driving.

• A May 29, 2019 response from city attorney Natalie Frank acknowledging that, “This change in policy was made on the advice of counsel.”

• A July 21, 2017 internal memo circulated by the city’s deputy director of accounts receivable directing city staffers to stop using distracted driving tickets improperly routed to city hearing officers to suspend driver’s licenses, withhold city permits and deny city employment.

• Sworn statements from city attorneys revealing that “collection efforts for unpaid distracted driver violations that were referred to the Department of administrative hearings for adjudication ceased on or about July 21, 2017…on advice of counsel.”

• Yet another sworn statement disclosing that nearly $3.2 million has been collected after Aug. 6, 2015 for distracted driving violations sent to the Department of Administrative hearings and resulting in a finding of liability.

“The city knew that what they were doing was wrong years before we filed this suit. Yet, they continued to collect millions of dollars on debt they knew was illegal. And it wasn’t until the eve of our lawsuit that they finally put the brakes on,” Zolna said Wednesday.

Zolna said his case against the city was “strong as it is…If they were sending these violations to administrative adjudication, the tickets and fines were worthless.” But the new documents “add a wrinkle” by showing “this was done intentionally.”

“It was shocking to us when we saw these documents. They knew about it and they kept doing it. It’s just outrageous. It’s crazy that the city does this kind of stuff,” he said.

Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey refused to comment on “pending litigation.” But he noted that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration “has already adopted reforms to reduce the burden of fines and fees for the hardest-hit residents” and “offer more pathways to compliance” that prevent residents from “losing driver licenses for non-driving violations.”

Emanuel was determined to fight the distracted driving lawsuit tooth-and-nail. Lightfoot is likely to be more sympathetic to the plight of motorists denied their due process rights.

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to raise the boot threshold, stop booting for non-moving violations and eliminate a hefty chunk of red light cameras at 149 intersections if those cameras were used for revenue — not safety.

The City Council has already approved the first installment of Lightfoot’s plan to go easier on scofflaws at a first-year cost of $15 million.

Administrative hearings have long been viewed as a kangaroo court that stacks the deck against the accused.

Zolna noted that the normal “rules of evidence” don’t apply. Chicago Police officers are not required to show up at administrative hearings. And there is no opportunity to cross examine witnesses.

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