A Chicago man has initiated a class action complaint against the city, claiming its penalties for minor violations like parking tickets or missing car window stickers are so punitive – particularly against those “least able to pay them” – that they violate state law.
Mike Blaha filed a complaint July 17 in Cook County Circuit Court, saying people routinely face “hundreds of dollars in fines and penalties … all of which are funneled into the city’s own system of administrative adjudication where the typical rules of evidence and civil procedure are disregarded.”
The administrative courts, Blaha contended, are supposed to adjudicate only minor fines and penalties under a state law prohibiting municipalities from enacting civil fine schedules under which the total fine and penalty for a single violation exceeds $250. He said the city’s illegal fine structure has yielded it “tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. …”
“The city has a long history of punitively enforcing its regressive fines and penalties, especially against citizens that are least able to pay them,” the complaint said. “Recent data shows that 16 percent of bankruptcy filers who live in minority communities in Chicago and who do not own a home filed bankruptcy primarily because of ticket debt owed to the city.”
Blaha is represented by attorneys Jacie C. Zolna, Myron M. Cherry, Benjamin R. Swetland and Jessica C. Chavez, of the firm of Myron M. Cherry & Associates LLC, of Chicago. That firm recently collected $11 million under a $38 million settlement ending a lawsuit against the city over allegedly illegal collection practices under its red light camera program.
Blaha said his past citations included parking within 15 feet of a fire hydrant on three different occasions and eight instances of not displaying a city sticker. He paid all but a recent fire hydrant parking fine, alleging he paid all fines under threats of more severe penalties from the city, including wage garnishments, collection actions, being reported to collections bureaus, vehicle seizures, driver’s license suspensions and real estate liens.
According to the complaint, the Illinois Vehicle Code limits the power of home rule units to address certain traffic regulations through administrative courts, and in so doing made clear the specific denial and limitations of home rule powers. One exception is illegal parking in a handicapped space, which may carry a fine up to $500, although another state law limits it to $350.
The complaint detailed 14 city vehicle violations exceeding $250, some — such as parking in a fire lane or blocking an alley — requiring late payment penalties to clear the threshold and others, such as double parking in the central business district or failure to have a proper muffler, that exceed the limit without late penalties. Blaha said the court should void adjudication of all such violations.
Blaha seeks to create a class of anyone who was assessed a vehicle violation exceeding $250, and a subclass of anyone who paid the city for such a violation. He estimates each class would include “many hundreds of thousands of members.”
In addition to class certification and a jury trial, Blaha wants the court to declare the city’s fines unconstitutional, to prevent the city from issuing or adjudicating such violations and award class members restitution with interest. The complaint also brings a claim of unjust enrichment for putative subclass members.