Fast on the heels of a $39 million settlement ending their class action lawsuit against City Hall over tickets issued under its red light camera program, attorneys with the firm of Myron Cherry & Associates have again delivered a class action lawsuit against the city of Chicago, now alleging the city also wrongly prosecuted tens of thousands of city citations issued under the city’s distracted driving ordinance.
On Aug 1., attorneys Myron M. Cherry, Jacie Zolna, Benjamin Swetland and Jessica Chavin filed the lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court against the city on behalf of named plaintiffs Aaron Potek, Adina Klein and Stephen Michelini.
The lawsuit asserts the city has for years improperly prosecuted people ticketed by Chicago Police for texting or otherwise using a mobile phone while driving. The lawsuit does not directly challenge the validity of the tickets themselves or question whether the ordinance under which the tickets were issued is constitutional.
Rather, the lawsuit alleges the city, rather than giving ticketed motorists the chance to defend themselves in Cook County Circuit Court, the city funneled those cited through the city’s administrative hearings system, depriving the accused of their rights under the law and allowing the city to collect significantly more money through the process.
“As a result of the City’s knowing circumvention of our State’s system for adjudicating distracted driving offenses, Plaintiffs were deprived of their right of a true day in court before a sworn judge,” the lawsuit alleged. “Meanwhile, the City was able to route them into private courts designed to favor the City – and pocket 100 percent of the revenue that resulted.”
The lawsuit centers on requirements written into state law that so-called moving violations – tickets issued to motorists for allegedly violating Illinois and local traffic laws while operating a motor vehicle – be sent to state courts for hearings and potential trial.
The reason such requirements exist, the lawsuit notes, is to allow those cited the chance to defend themselves against the accusations, as all moving violations are reported to the Illinois Secretary of State. And, should a motorist accumulate too many moving violations, the Secretary of State’s office is empowered to suspend their drivers license.
This requirement extends to violations of state law and of local ordinances which essentially mirror state traffic rules. In this instance, the complaint notes, Chicago’s distracted driving ordinance is little different from the state law forbidding similar behavior.
However, the city did not send accused violators of the rules to state court, nor did the city report violations to the Secretary of State.
Further, because the alleged violations were tried through the city’s Department of Administrative Hearings, the city could pressure the accused into quickly paying a $100 fine, as did the three named plaintiffs in this case. For instance, the complaint notes the city, in communications accompanying the ticket, would threaten to jack up fines to as much as $500, if those ticketed didn’t pay $100 within seven days. Meanwhile, the complaint alleged, the city would often schedule hearings on the tickets weeks into the future, well beyond the urged seven-day $100 payment window.
And, the complaint alleged, the city employed yet more “perverse incentives” to press the accused “into compliance,” threatening to ask the Secretary of State to suspend their drivers license until they paid the fines and otherwise satisfied the DOAH.
“Accordingly, Plaintiffs were forced to appear before a ‘court’ that had no jurisdiction over them and then submit to whatever fines that ‘court’ assessed on pain of elevated fines and the loss of their license to drive,” the lawsuit said.
And the city, the complaint alleged, had good reason to prosecute such violations this way. Should the matter have been sent to state court, the complaint said, the city would need to split any fines collected with the court and others, keeping only about 45 percent of the fines paid.
However, by prosecuting through the administrative hearing process, the city would be able to keep the full fines paid.
The legal challenge comes as the latest gambit launched by the Cherry firm against the city over traffic enforcement programs.
Last month, the firm announced a $39 million settlement ending years of litigation against the city over allegedly improperly prosecuted tickets issued to motorists under the city’s controversy-plagued automated red light camera program.
As part of that settlement, the Cherry firm is expected to request as much as $11 million in attorney fees.