IL appeals court upholds dismissal of class action challenging Chicago red light camera program law

By Jonathan Bilyk | Feb 14, 2018

Saying state law designates Chicago’s red light and speed camera enforcement programs as something different from ordinary traffic laws, a state appeals court has again handed a defeat to a class action attempting to overthrow the city’s automated traffic citation program, which annually adds millions of dollars in fines from ticketed motorists to the city’s coffers.

On Feb. 13, a three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court sided with City Hall in rejecting an appeal from a group of ticketed motorists, who claimed a Cook County judge had erred in dismissing their claims against the city’s program – and thus, the billions of dollars in fines it has amassed - is legally invalid and violates the Illinois state constitution.

The decision was authored by Justice Sheldon A. Harris, as an unpublished order issued under Supreme Court Rule 23, which limits its use as precedent. Justices Daniel J. Pierce and John B. Simon concurred in the decision.

“We find that the City’s 2003 ordinance is not a traffic regulation governing the movement of vehicles,” the justices wrote.  “Therefore, it does not conflict with state legislation prohibiting the administrative adjudication of an offense that is a traffic regulation governing the movement of vehicles.”

“Our determination is supported by the legislature’s subsequent passage of the Enabling Act … which states that an automated traffic law violation ‘for which a civil penalty is imposed is not a violation of a traffic regulation governing the movement of vehicles.’”

Since 2012, the plaintiffs, led by named plaintiff Terie Kata and represented by attorneys Patrick Keating, of the firm of Roberts McGivney Zagotta, of Chicago; Derek Y. Brandt, of downstate Edwardsville; and Andrea Bierstein, of Simmons Hanly Conroy, of New York; have attempted to move through the courts their assertions the city of Chicago’s automated enforcement programs had been unconstitutionally established.

Their lawsuit directly attacked the state law the city has cited as enabling the automated traffic citation program. That law, referred to in court documents as “the Enabling Act,” allowed municipal governments in only counties near Chicago and St. Louis to establish such red light camera and speed camera programs.

The plaintiffs argued such a law is forbidden by the Illinois constitution’s prohibition on local laws.

Without that state law, the plaintiffs asserted the city’s program impinges on the state’s preeminence in enforcing traffic laws and handling moving violations.

Plaintiffs also argued the city, which passed its ordinance creating the red light program in 2003, should have been required to reenact its ordinance following the passage of the Enabling Act in 2006. Since it did not, the plaintiffs asserted, all the $100 tickets issued since 2006 should be considered illegal and void, potentially putting billions of dollars at stake.

Cook County Judge Rita Novak, however, dismissed the lawsuit in 2016, asserting the Enabling Act could be considered “rational,” as it allowed Chicago and other communities in the metropolitan areas to address issues caused by “different enforcement needs,” relative to the rest of the state. And she further determined the ordinance did not need to be reenacted, as she deemed it took effect when the state passed the Enabling Act three year after the city enacted its red light camera ordinance.

Novak’s decision prompted an appeal from the plaintiffs, who asserted Novak had created “legal fiction,” rendering the state constitution’s language forbidding local laws “a dead letter,” by granting lawmakers the ability to simply cite population differences when crafting laws that grant certain municipalities greater powers than others.

On appeal, however, the justices rejected the plaintiffs’ claims concerning the city’s overreach, saying they did not believe the city program stepped into an area of law enforcement belonging exclusively to the state.

That finding, justices said, effectively allowed them to sidestep much of the plaintiffs’ other arguments.

“Having determined that the City’s automated traffic law enforcement system does not upset the uniform enforcement of … the Illinois Vehicle Code, and violations under the system are not offenses that are traffic regulations governing the movement of vehicles, we find that the City had the authority as a home-rule unit to enact the 2003 ordinance,” the justices said. “As a result, the validity and enforceability of the ordinance does not depend upon the General Assembly’s subsequent passage of the Enabling Act. Therefore, we need not address plaintiffs’ contention that the Enabling Act could not grant the City authority to enforce its automated traffic enforcement system because the act is unconstitutional local legislation. We also need not address plaintiffs’ argument that the City had to re-enact its invalid 2003 ordinance after passage of the Enabling Act in 2006.”

In response to the ruling, Keating said: "We are disappointed in the court’s decision. We are evaluating our options for further appeal.”

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City of Chicago Illinois First District Appellate Court Roberts McGivney Zagotta LLC Simmons Hanly Conroy

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