Are you one of the thousands of Chicago motorists who saw a flashing white light in your review mirror as you drove through an intersection? Did you open your mail a few weeks later to find a traffic and color picture of your car going through that intersection while the light was red? Did you pay the fine? If a recent court ruling is upheld, you may be due for a refund.
On Monday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported on a ruling handed down by Judge Kathleen Kennedy that declared all red light tickets in the city void. These tickets date back as far as 2003. Judge Kennedy reached her ruling after finding the city violated several requirements set forth in Chicago’s rules and regulations aimed at ensuring drivers receive proper notice of alleged red light violations. These requirements can be found in Section 9-100-050 of the Chicago Municipal Code.
Most prominently, Judge Kennedy found that the city failed to issue a second notice of violation to drivers who failed to respond to the first citation. Specifically, Section 9-100-050(d)(1) requires that “if no response is made to a parking or compliance violation notice… the city traffic compliance administrator shall cause a second notice of a parking or compliance violation to be sent to the respondent.”
As Judge Kennedy held, this second notice is required under Chicago’s own municipal rules. In her order, she analyzed, “the second notice provision is designed to protect a non-responding violator’s right to contest a violation before determination of liability issues.” She noted that once liability is determined and the fine goes uncontested, the city can pile on late fees for the failure to pay the fine. She concluded that “the alleged practice of accelerating late fees without statutory compliance is sufficient to show a violation of the fundamental principles of justice, equity and good conscience.”
The Sun-Times notes that this is the latest in a series of adverse rulings against Chicago’s troubled red light program. Originally touted as a public safety measure and a means of reducing serious traffic accidents in some of Chicago’s most dangerous intersections, critics claim the program has been used as a tool to raise money for the city as well as the private company who created the system. Just last month, a Chicago Department of Transportation employee was convicted of taking over $2,000,000 in bribes from the installation company. The employee, John Bills, received up to $2,000 for every camera installed in the city.
Prior to the bribery scandal, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune found that the city was shortening yellow light times below a three-second requirement for yellow lights. These shortened times were only happening at intersections with red light cameras. As a result of this criticism, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel recently reduced, by roughly 20%, the number of red light cameras in the city. Currently, however, there are still cameras at 151 intersections in Chicago.
Describing the significance of Judge Kennedy’s ruling, the Sun-Times claims “the wording of her ruling was so strong, there is little doubt thousands of tickets will ultimately be nullified, potentially forcing the city to refund hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and penalties already paid.” An attorney for the Plainitffs’, Jacie Zolna, claims these refunds could be as much as $200,000,000 plus interest. The lawsuit now enters a new stage where attorneys will seek to establish class-action status for all motorists ticketed by the red light camera system. Additionally, lawyers expect to spend months in discovery determining the number of drivers eligible for refunds.
The City vows to fight Judge Kennedy’s decision. Spokesman Bill McCaffrey argues that the Plaintiffs are still guilty of running the red lights and therefore, no refunds should be due. However, as Judge Kennedy made clear in her ruling, sufficient due process is a fundamental component of our justice system and must be followed to ensure fairness for all citizens. Such a process was not followed by the City of Chicago and the city, therefore, may end up paying the price.