An Illinois appeals court ruled on Friday that the city of Chicago unlawfully overcharged some residents who were ticketed for not having a vehicle sticker, which a car owner claims drove him to declare bankruptcy after racking up thousands of dollars in fines.
Lawyer Jacie Zolna, who is representing three residents in a lawsuit that led to the ruling, said the ruling paves the way for a potential class action lawsuit that could see hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket debts subject to of careful examination.
“The current mayor has admitted that the city is dependent on ticket revenue and uses tickets to bolster its budget,” he said. “The problem is that it comes at the expense of our most vulnerable citizens.”
The vehicle decals are the heart of the case. The city charges $95 per year for a passenger car sticker, with the money going towards road maintenance. Not displaying a sticker may mean a ticket.
State law sets the maximum penalty for such a violation at $250, but city prosecutors argued it was a “drafting error” in the vehicle code, according to the ruling. of the Court of Appeal. They said the legislature provided the actual cap was $500 and the city charged accordingly, with a $200 ticket attracting an additional $200 fine if not paid within 25 days.
Zolna said that in some cases, the city has also stacked one ticket on top of another for the same offense, leading to some residents facing massive penalties.
Rodney Shelton, who lives in West Humboldt Park, said that was what happened to him. Speaking at a press conference at Zolna’s office, he said a car he bought couldn’t pass the emissions test, and without it he couldn’t buy a vehicle sticker urban.
Even though he parked the car in a private lot, he said, the city gave him dozens of tickets for not having the sticker until the fees and penalties reached about $20,000. He had to declare bankruptcy before he could start paying back, he said.
“I consider the city to be a taxpayer predator,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the city’s legal department did not immediately comment on the details of the appeal ruling.
“The Legal Department is reviewing the notice,” she said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has campaigned against the city’s system of fines and fees, frequently criticizing the city for balancing its budget on the backs of taxpayers by imposing regressive penalties through ticketing.
A few months after taking office in 2019, the mayor led through the city council a series of reforms to the city’s fines and fees system that ended the practice of suspending drivers’ licenses from people who didn’t pay parking tickets, reduced vehicle sticker penalties and created a six-month payment plan to give those with ticket debt more time to pay.
In 2020, however, Lightfoot lobbied for the city to use speed cameras to ticket drivers who go only 6 miles over the limit, drawing criticism that the city continues to engage in unfair practices under his administration.
Bucktown resident Kyle Garchar, a plaintiff in the vehicle sticker case, said he was caught in a downward spiral after securing three of the tickets in a month.
He said he was unable to pay the fines, which, with late charges, amounted to $1,200, and so he was barred from working as a rideshare driver. The companies have an agreement with the town hall to prohibit people with tickets from driving unless they are in a reimbursement plan, he said.
“It was just one thing after another,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy to me that they are able to collect so many tickets in such a short time with little or no recourse.”
He said he finally got a repayment plan, but was still paying it back four years later.
Chicago in 2019 changed its municipal code so that the late fee for a sticker violation is $50, keeping the total cost of the ticket within the state limit of $250. Even so, city prosecutors fighting the lawsuit pointed to a section of state law they say reflects the legislature’s true intent to set a $500 limit.
The three-judge 1st District Court of Appeals panel disagreed, saying the higher penalty is only specified for a few offenses and sticker violations are not among them. He sent the case back to Cook County Circuit Court for new litigation.
Zolna said he was trying to get refunds for people who paid excessive fines and to clear their ticket debt, but he predicted the city would fight hard to preserve the status quo.
“They won’t do anything to change,” he said. “They’re going to hire an army of taxpayer-funded lawyers to try to fight tooth and nail to keep their chicken that lays the golden egg, which is to… ticket the poor and put them out of business.”