Even You, Law-Abiding Citizen, Might Have Suspended License Plates In Illinois

Drivers on Interstate 290 in Chicago.
Drivers on Interstate 290 in Chicago. Brian Crawford / Flickr
Drivers on Interstate 290 in Chicago.
Drivers on Interstate 290 in Chicago. Brian Crawford / Flickr

Even You, Law-Abiding Citizen, Might Have Suspended License Plates In Illinois

Chicago Tonight political correspondent Paris Schutz said he learned his license plates were suspended after getting pulled over for a routine traffic stop.

That’s because the Secretary of State’s office can suspend your plates if you don’t respond to a letter that demands proof of insurance, Schutz said.

“Going to the DMV, what I found out is that there is a random selection of 100,000 drivers that the Secretary of State chooses to send mailers out to,” Schutz said Thursday on WBEZ’s Morning Shift.

“Either I missed that in the mail or it never got to me or I ignored it. I have no idea. But if you don’t send that letter back then they do suspend your license plates, even if you do have all your ducks in a row.” Schutz added that the state does send a second letter that warns of a forthcoming suspension.

In a conversation with Morning Shift host Jenn White, Schutz explained the report on this system that he wrote for WTTW. Below are highlights from their conversation.

Who gets the letter?

Paris Schutz: There are nine million legal driver’s license holders in Illinois. The 100,000 that they randomly send these letters out to, that’s one percent of all the drivers. This is how they’re determining who does — and doesn’t — have insurance in Illinois: They’re sending it out to a random sampling of one percent of drivers.

What does the form require?

Schutz: It’s just a very basic form that asks you to fill out your policy number and your [insurance] company. So you have to fill it out. You have to mail it back. I asked them, “What happens if someone says I have such-and-such insurance?” There’s a department at the Secretary of State’s office that used to employ 50 people — it’s down to 20 people now because of budget cuts — they process these letters and call the insurance company to verify, “Does Paris Schutz have this policy with you? Well, OK then they’re legal.” It’s this kind of outdated, antiquated system that employs 20 people in the Secretary of State’s office that just does this, basically.

If I get pulled over, can’t I just show the officer my proof of insurance?

Schutz: [The infraction] is driving on a suspended plate, so it doesn’t matter what the reason is. If your plates are suspended then that’s illegal and you’re going to get a ticket for that. They need proof that not only do you have insurance now, but there was never a lapse in your coverage. And according to the Secretary of State’s office, if you don’t send this letter back, then there was a lapse in your insurance, even if, like I said, you did all the things you were supposed to do.

Is this system unique to Illinois?

Schutz: I looked at other Midwest states and there is no program like this. Usually, the way that the state tells whether you have insurance or not is if you get pulled over in a traffic accident or in some kind of traffic violation they ask for your insurance, you don’t have it, well then you get reported to the state. And so this is kind of unique and sort of an extra step that the state makes drivers go through. And again, in this age of electronic databases and computers we’re still using a mail system.

I asked them what does this all cost taxpayers — we’re employing the workers that do this, we’re employing all the postage in the mail that goes into this — and they didn’t have a number, but they did say that because of budget cuts they did reduce this office. It used to be 50 people. They used to send it out to 300,000 people. But because of the budget impasse they only send it out to 100,000.

Is the state planning to update this system?

Schutz: There’s a bill sitting on the governor’s desk right now. It’s called the E-verify bill. It will basically put in place guidelines that the state will have to check on all 9 million drivers now, twice a year. So if you’ve skated by before, you’re not going to skate by anymore. Although, they don’t know how the system is going to work or how much it’s going to cost. … Everything is up for debate right now but they acknowledge that this is not an efficient system.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire segment.