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Suit: Chicago Should Refund Drivers Hit With Expensive Tickets

UPDATED AT 7:05 P.M.

A new lawsuit accuses the city of Chicago of creating a system that has left thousands of drivers with expensive tickets that could cost motorists millions.

The class-action suit, filed Tuesday in Cook County Circuit Court, 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.

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.

These violations include: parking within 15 feet of a fire hydrant; parking in a fire lane; blocking an alley, driveway or firelane; not having a city sticker; not paying the meter in a loading zone; having no or an improper muffler; having tinted windows; having an excessive diesel power engine; and double parking in a business district.

Last month, ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ reported on how the city has, on 20,000 occasions over the past decade, issued multiple city sticker tickets to the same vehicle on the same day. Those tickets — which appear to violate city ordinance — were disproportionately issued in black neighborhoods.

“The Illinois General Assembly never intended to allow the City to impose such severe hardships through its administrative system of adjudication,” the suit states.

Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department, responded to the suit with a statement.

“We have not yet received the suit and cannot comment on its merit. 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.”

The suit was filed by Mike Blaha, a Cook County resident issued numerous tickets, including parking within 15 feet of a fire hydrant and not having a valid city sticker.

He is being represented by Myron M. Cherry & Associates, which forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration to pay more than $38 million to drivers who were issued tickets via red light cameras.

"This is part of a larger problem," said Jacie C. Zolna, a lawyer representing Blaha. "We’ve uncovered a number of abuses by the City in connection with its municipal fine system ... This recent suit demonstrates that the City was also imposing excessive and illegal fines and penalties for a variety of parking, standing and compliance violations. Collectively, all of these abuses steered money into the City’s pocket at the expense of its citizens. It has to stop."  

The lawsuit comes less than a month after the Woodstock Institute issued a report that found African-American and Latino residents are unfairly burdened by the city’s ticketing on the South and West sides.

ProPublica Illinois also reported on how Chicago’s ticketing practices have sent thousands of African-American motorists into bankruptcy.

In April, Reason magazine reported on how Chicago’s interpretation of the “home rule” amendment has allowed the city to skirt the court system and impound vehicles indefinitely until debts are paid off.

The lawsuit is seeking refunds or restitution to be determined by a jury.

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