Lawsuits, Stalled Legislation, And New Mayor. What’s Going On With Chicago’s Ticketing Reform?

A car with a parking ticket in Chicago
Bill Healy / WBEZ
A car with a parking ticket in Chicago
Bill Healy / WBEZ

Lawsuits, Stalled Legislation, And New Mayor. What’s Going On With Chicago’s Ticketing Reform?

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During Chicago’s city elections, mayoral candidates were vying to fix the city’s broken ticketing, towing and debt-collection practices.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot herself campaigned on fixing the issue. She vowed to “ban the boot” and end license suspensions for non-moving violations, and to eliminate red-light cameras that didn’t have safety purposes.

That was in response to a WBEZ and ProPublica Illinois investigations that found City Hall’s ticketing and towing practices have had a harmful and disparate impact on Chicago’s low-income and minority communities. The news stories prompted City Clerk Anna Valencia to launch a task force in December to recommend fixes to the new mayor.

In the meantime, the city has been hit with multiple lawsuits, and Lightfoot even played a role in postponing state legislation that would have ended license suspensions for some tickets.

Ahead of the task force’s expected report, here’s a look at the current efforts to overhaul Chicago’s unfair ticketing and towing system.

Lightfoot taps the brakes on drivers’ license suspension bill

A measure in Springfield to end license suspensions for non-moving violations came close to passing, but was ultimately stalled at the mayor’s urging. Several weeks ago, Lightfoot asked the bill’s sponsors for more time to address the “totality of these serious issues in a holistic approach.”

According to ProPublica Illinois, Lightfoot sent a letter to lawmakers, assuring them that “[her] team is already devising a plan that moves our city away from balancing the budget on the backs of those who can least afford it. This change will require work in Springfield, and I am committed to partnering with you in this effort.”

The measure had the support of lawmakers from both parties, as well as advocacy groups such as the Chicago Jobs Council, the Woodstock Institute, and the ACLU of Illinois.

Lightfoot’s administration says it will work with lawmakers and advocates over the summer on the bill, in hopes of picking it up again during Springfield’s fall session.

Reviving ticket reform at Chicago’s City Hall

A lot of legislation to overhaul the city’s ticketing system went nowhere under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But now that Lightfoot’s in office, some has resurfaced.

Ald. Ed Burke introduced a city ordinance in November that mirrors language used in state proposals to end license suspensions for non-moving violations. A few weeks later, his offices were raided by FBI, and Burke became a political persona-non-grata at City Hall. Burke was later charged with extortion, the measure died in the last City Council, and since then, the 14th Ward alderman has been indicted on 14 new corruption charges.

Another revived measure is set to come from Lightfoot floor leader Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward, who also chairs the Economic, Capital and Technology Development committee. Last year, he and other aldermen introduced expansive legislation aimed at mitigating punishing late fees and tow fees, with exceptions for people below certain income levels and victims of domestic violence. The measure never made it to a vote.

But Villegas plans on re-introducing the ordinance at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, according to his staff.

The proposed changes would give motorists more time to pay tickets, allow some to perform community service in place of some fines and penalties, and make it easier to get on city payment plans. It would also cap late payment penalties at 10% for tickets, instead of doubling the original fine.

The city would also cut tow fines and fees in half, provided that violators perform community service instead, and the sale of some unclaimed vehicles could be made into donations to nonprofits.

Finally, Budget Committee Chair Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd Ward, also re-introduced an ordinance last month that would affect the city’s impound system, specifically for innocent owners whose cars were caught up in crime-related tows.

She also proposed that money the city gets from the sale of seized vehicles be applied to any city debts owed by the owners. Currently, Chicago sells most cars at prices around $200 each to a private towing company, effectively valuing new and old working cars as scrap metal.

“I am looking towards being able to help citizens pay down debt,” said Dowell, adding that the current system hurts car owners and city residents the most.

“By selling the car, [this ordinance] would allow the expense of the tow to be paid. It allows you to take any remaining dollars and apply it towards debt that you have accrued, whether it’s parking debt or your water bill or whatever it is you want to.”

“The city should not get the benefit,” the alderman of the South Loop added. “The benefit should accrue to the person whose car was towed.”

Ticketing lawsuits wend through the courts

The city is facing at least three major, class-action lawsuits relating to its ticketing and towing practices.

In April, a class-action lawsuit was filed that seeks to stop the city from seizing cars used in certain crimes, and return vehicles to innocent owners who can’t afford to pay the hefty impound fees.

The suit, brought by the Institute for Justice, is significant in that it challenges the city on constitutional grounds in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that bans states and municipalities from imposing “excessive fines.”

Another class-action suit, filed in July, claims the city created an administrative hearing process that illegally imposed “tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in fines and penalties” on violations that range from parking in a fire lane to having tinted windows.

The suit was brought on by Myron M. Cherry & Associates, which forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration to pay nearly $39 million to drivers who were issued tickets via red light cameras.

According to the suit, Illinois law prohibits administrative hearings on any single violation or fine that exceeds $250 because the process doesn’t offer the same due process as state courts. The suit claims the city is breaking the law by hearing cases where fines and late penalties total more than that amount.

A hearing is set for June 25.

Yet another class-action suit brought by Cherry, filed in November, takes aim at the city for issuing multiple tickets on the same day for city sticker and license plate registration violations.

On the same day the suit was announced last year, the city said it would dismiss some 35,000 tickets and issued refunds for 12,000 of them.

But City Hall did not dismiss duplicate license plate tickets.

An analysis of city ticket data by ProPublica and WBEZ show close to 100,000 instances of duplicate citations for expired license plates since 2007.

This hearing is set for July 29.

Elliott Ramos is the data editor for WBEZ. Follow him @ChicagoEl.

Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.