Tens of Thousands of People Lost Driver’s Licenses Over Unpaid Parking Tickets. Now, They’re Getting Them Back.

Gov Pritzker signs law
Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs law ending license suspensions for parking tickets on Chicago's West Side. Elliott Ramos / WBEZ
Gov Pritzker signs law
Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs law ending license suspensions for parking tickets on Chicago's West Side. Elliott Ramos / WBEZ

Tens of Thousands of People Lost Driver’s Licenses Over Unpaid Parking Tickets. Now, They’re Getting Them Back.

Updated at 3:24 p.m. 

Some 55,000 motorists will regain their right to drive this year after Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed legislation Friday that ends the practice of suspending licenses over unpaid parking tickets.

The law, known as the License to Work Act, goes into effect in July.

“Tens of thousands of Illinoisans lose their licenses each year for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to drive,” Pritzker said at a news conference on Chicago’s West Side, an area of the city that’s been heavily hit by ticket debt and license suspensions. “If you’re living below or near the poverty line and you're looking at a choice between your unpaid parking tickets or your kids’ medicine or your family's next meal, well, that's no choice at all.”

The new law ends license suspensions for a number of non-moving violations, including the largest category: unpaid parking, standing and vehicle compliance tickets. Previously, 10 unpaid tickets from those categories could trigger a suspension.

Friday’s bill signing caps the end of a three-year effort by a coalition of advocates who have argued that limiting impoverished residents’ ability to drive makes it difficult for many of them to get to work, much less pay off their ticket debt.

The issue gained traction after a February 2018 investigation by ProPublica Illinois found Chicago’s ticketing and debt collection practices disproportionately hurt black motorists, sending thousands of them into bankruptcy. Filing for bankruptcy was more affordable, ProPublica Illinois found, than signing up for onerous ticket payment plans. Bankruptcy also allows motorists to get their licenses reinstated and regain possession of impounded vehicles.

In a subsequent analysis, ProPublica Illinois found that license suspensions tied to ticket debt disproportionately affected motorists in largely black sections of Chicago and its suburbs. Later, ProPublica Illinois collaborated with WBEZ Chicago and found a variety of problems, including geographic disparities and duplicative ticketing, tied to violation for vehicles that lacked a city sticker.

State Sen. Omar Aquino, a Chicago Democrat, said the reporting “shed the light on how, unfortunately, there were some practices in our own state that we should've been embarrassed about.” Advocates leading the demand for reform at the state level include the Chicago Jobs Council, Woodstock Institute, American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, Heartland Alliance and Americans for Prosperity-Illinois.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who campaigned on ending the city’s regressive system of fines and fees, has already ushered in a number of reforms, including debt relief, reducing some penalties, changing payment plans and ending the practice of seeking license suspensions over unpaid parking tickets. City Clerk Anna Valencia, one of the first public officials to publicly call for reforms, said Friday she plans to continue to push for more changes.

The change to state law couldn’t come soon enough, said Stephen Carpenter, a 38-year-old from Chicago who had been considering filing for bankruptcy for months. Carpenter’s license was suspended about two years ago over unpaid parking tickets. On Friday, he said he’d accrued about $19,000 in ticket debt, mostly for expired plates citations, in the southwest suburb of Palos Hills. He relies on rides from his wife or rideshare services, which he estimates costs him upward of $300 a month.

He called the legislation a “light at the end of the tunnel” and said he now won’t file for bankruptcy. “If I would have [done] that, that would prevent me from getting a house in two years the way we were planning to do,” said Carpenter, who fears ruining his credit. “I’m going to toughen it out until [the law goes into effect].”

The law does not address license suspensions for debt tied to red-light or speed camera tickets; five unpaid camera tickets can trigger a license suspension. Advocates said Friday they are considering proposing legislation to also end those suspensions. A June 2018 Woodstock Institute report found that motorists from low-income and minority communities receive a disproportionate share of red-light camera tickets.

Asked whether he would consider legislation to end license suspensions for camera ticket debt, Pritzker said the issue was “absolutely worthy of consideration. We have to look at the information and make sure we’re doing it in the right way.”

Elliott Ramos is WBEZ's data editor. Follow him on Twitter @ChicagoEl

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter at ProPublica Illinois. Follow her @msanchezMIA.