Illinois Appellate Court breathes new life into distracted driving lawsuit, opens door to possible refund of millions in fines

The Appellate Court ruled Circuit Judge Pamela McLean Myerson was wrong to toss the case in August 2021 by finding the plaintiffs lacked legal standing.

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Chicago City Hall.

Chicago City Hall.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Illinois Appellate Court has breathed new life into a lawsuit with the potential to force the city to refund $10 million to motorists fined for “distracted driving” violations.

The Appellate Court ruled Circuit Judge Pamela McLean Myerson was wrong to toss the case in August 2021 by finding the plaintiffs lacked legal standing.

Instead, the case was revived and remanded to Cook County Circuit Court. That opens the door for plaintiffs’ attorney Jacie Zolna to seek class-action status on behalf of “tens of thousands of motorists” who paid $10 million in distracted driving fines from January 2014 through August 2017, and whose cases were improperly routed through administrative hearing officers.

“What’s egregious is, they were doing this for money. They couldn’t get the fines for these tickets by sending ’em to Circuit Court, where they belong. So they broke Illinois law and sent them to their own administrative courts, so they could keep every penny of the fines. And they knew what they were doing was wrong,” Zolna said of the ruling, issued Wednesday.

“The Appellate Court said, ‘Of course they were injured. They had to pay fines to the city that were illegal. They should get ’em back.’ … It means that the case has been reinstated. It’s gonna go back down to the Circuit Court where we can seek class-action status and try to get refunds for everyone. … People paid $10 million in these unlawful tickets. And there’s about $10 million that people have not paid that’s a debt owing to the city that we’re gonna try to extinguish.”

“The City is currently reviewing the decision and has no further comment as the matter remains in litigation,” Law Department spokesperson Kristin Cabanban said.

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

The firm also 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.

The money at stake in the distracted driving case is not as big, but it’s no less galling, Zolna said.

“Once they stopped sending them to administrative courts, they just stopped writing tickets. They don’t write these tickets anymore because they don’t get any money for doing it,” he said.

“That tells you what everyone in the city knows: That the city uses their ticketing apparatus as their own personal piggy bank. They do all of this for the money and not for what they always say. That this is all about safety. If it was all about safety, they’d still be writing these tickets today, but they aren’t. … There was like a dozen of these tickets last year. They were issuing like 45,000 a year before they got caught.”

In August 2017, Zolna filed a lawsuit accusing the city of sending those tickets to administrative hearing officers when state law required them to go to Traffic Court for one reason: to allow the city to keep the fines to itself instead of sharing 55 percent of the revenue with the county and state.

Two years later, ongoing discovery in the case turned up several pieces of evidence Zolna viewed 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: “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 “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 had been collected after Aug. 6, 2015, for distracted driving violations sent to the Department of Administrative hearings and resulting in a finding of liability.

Zolna said he views Wednesday’s ruling as “just another in a long line of ticketing abuses” by the city.

“It’s always about the money. They’re always manipulating the system to maximize their revenue and to make it harder for people to contest these things,” he said.

“Over and over again, they’re breaking the law at the expense of Chicago motorists.”

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