A class action lawsuit has accused the city of Chicago of essentially recouping its losses from the sale of its parking meters from the pockets of low-income city residents and others dinged with parking tickets, fines and fees they called unconstitutionally excessive.
On Feb. 27, attorneys from the firms of Dowd & Dowd Ltd. and the Clinton Law Firm, both of Chicago, filed a class action complaint in Chicago federal court on behalf of potentially hundreds of thousands of people, challenging the city’s parking meter enforcement ordinances.
Toya Dixon-Randolph was listed as the named plaintiff and potential class representative.
The lawsuit asks the judge to order the city to pay at least $15 million in damages, plus attorney fees.
Patrick Dowd Dowd & Dowd Ltd.
The lawsuit centers on the city’s parking meter enforcement practices, particularly since the city sold its parking meters in a controversial 2008 deal for $1.15 billion.
“This enforcement scheme is highly unequitable,” the complaint says. “It excessively fines an individual who underestimates the duration of their stay and affords them no opportunity to rectify or mitigate the minor error.”
The lawsuit notes the city slaps motorists who allow their parking meters to expire with fines of $50-$65, based on the zone in which the vehicle is parked. Fines for expired parking meters in the Loop are higher than those in other parts of the city.
“The fine is assessed regardless of how long the driver has overstayed,” the lawsuit said. The complaint notes that can be 1 second, “1 minute, 10 minutes, or 1 hour all subjects an individual to the same fine.”
The complaint noted for a little over a year, from January 2010-March 2011, the city granted a grace period, allowing those ticketed the opportunity to contest the fines, if they could show the ticket was issued within 5 minutes of the meter expiring.
“… This grace period was to protect law-abiding individuals who accidentally overstayed their meter time despite attempting to comply with the regulations by paying for the meter time,” the lawsuit said.
However, that provision was “extinguished” in April 2011, putting motorists on the hook for a hefty fine even if they are late to renew their meter time by even one second.
Further, the complaint notes, those who lack the means to pay their initial fines face even stiffer penalties, as the city then assesses a late fee which doubles the amount owed to the city.
“… This accumulation of debt can result in license suspension, vehicle immobilization, restricted access to required licenses to do business in the City, and even diminished access to grants and funding earmarked for low-income communities,” the lawsuit said.
The plaintiffs assert that burden falls disproportionately on the city’s poor and racial minority communities, who may lack the means to pay even the initial fine.
“This inequity is absolutely unconscionable when weighed against the nominal cost the driver would have paid to extend the time (as little as 3 cents per minute and at most, 11 cents per minute) against the $50/$65 fine,” the lawsuit said.
“As an example, for a motorist parked in a Chicago Neighborhood who has paid but overstays as little as five minutes, the ratio of the penalty to the amount it would have cost to continue use of the same space is nearly (300-to-1).”
In a press release, the plaintiffs’ lawyers claim the city has collected at least $47 million in fines and fees as a result of its parking meter enforcement program since 2010.
The lawsuit asserts the city should provide drivers with the opportunity to “mitigate their damages” by paying for “time they overstayed,” even though the city gives motorists the chance to purchase additional time easily at the meter or through its ParkChicago smartphone app.
In the press release, the plaintiffs say the city’s practices particularly fall short when measured against the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling declaring the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines also applies to local governments, like the city.
The lawsuit notes the city’s parking policies stand in contrast to fines assessed for driving on the Chicago Skyway. That fine is $25, and drivers are given seven days to pay the missed tolls before they are assessed the fine, the lawsuit notes.
The lawsuit asserts the city’s parking meter enforcement program and parking ticket policies violate the U.S. Constitution’s 8th and 14th Amendments, for imposing excessive fines and depriving those receiving parking tickets of their rights to due process and equal protection under the law.
The plaintiffs asked the judge to approve a class of additional plaintiffs, which they said in a press release could number in the hundreds of thousands of people.
“The city’s decision to force drivers to bear the costs of its disastrous decision to privatize the parking meter system in 2008 has exploited all Chicago drivers,” said attorney Patrick Dowd, of the Dowd firm, in the press release. “Its dependence on excessive and unconstitutional fines and policies is particularly devastating to Chicago’s low-income and minority citizens who can least afford it.”