Cook County Record

Friday, September 20, 2019

$100 tickets not steep enough to let people fighting red light tickets mount legal defense of choice: Appeals panel

Federal Court

By Scott Holland | Aug 5, 2019


CHICAGO — A federal appeals panel has tossed out a legal challenge to a suburban community's red light camera ticket program, as judges ruled the village of Lakemoor was within its constitutional authority to limit the range of defenses that a ticketed driver could raise against the tickets, in part because the $100 fine was too small to impose a steep "administrative burden" on the village.

In an opinion issued Aug. 1, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed a legal challenge to Lakemoor’s red light camera program should be dismissed.

U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen had dismissed the class action complaint brought against the village by plaintiff Brian Knutson, determining citations were properly issued and that no one was deprived of due process rights.


Dominick Lanzito | Peterson Johnson & Murray

Seventh Circuit Judges Daniel Manion, Diane Sykes and Michael Brennan heard arguments on Knutson’s appeal April 17. Manion wrote the opinion, with Sykes and Brennan concurring.

The original class action complaint and appeal alleged Lakemoor’s red light camera tickets were invalid because they didn’t properly identify which municipal code the drivers had violated. Further, the complaint said the village denied due process by limiting the possible defenses a driver could argue in front of a hearing officer. 

Aspen rejected both arguments, and the panel agreed.

“They received a written notice of each violation, which included a description and photograph of the violation as well as the time, date and location where it occurred,” Manion wrote. “They also had an opportunity to contest the violation before a hearing officer, and the violation notices explained in detail how to request such a hearing.”

Ticketed drivers were given a meaningful opportunity to argue their cases, the panel determined, as due process is required in proportion to private interests at stake — in this case a $100 traffic ticket.

“We do not pretend a $100 fine is of no consequence,” Manion wrote. “However, in the grand scheme of deprivations the government can effect, including imprisonment or the seizure of highly valuable property, a $100 fine is among the less serious sort.”

The panel further detailed the number of defenses a ticketed vehicle owner could raise under the village ordinance, such as proving that person didn’t own the car at the time the ticket was issued, the driver was properly yielding to an emergency vehicle, the photo evidence was inconclusive or the citation was duplicative.

“By contrast, the plaintiffs’ desired defense (namely, the violation notice did not contain a proper citation to the Code section allegedly violated) has no bearing on culpability,” Manion wrote. “Preventing alleged violators from asserting this technicality as a defense does not present a risk of erroneous deprivation.”

The panel also said the village has a valid interest in limiting the number of possible defenses, specifically in establishing administrative efficiency. 

"Requiring the hearing officer to entertain any defenses the alleged violator desires to raise, even those with no bearing on culpability, would create a greater administrative burden and cost for Lakemoor,” Manion wrote.

The panel pointed to a 2016 Seventh Circuit opinion in Cochran v. Illinois State Toll Highway Authority in which it held a plaintiff couldn't raise a knowledge defense at a hearing on a strict liability offense. Since other defenses were available, the panel found, the hearing wasn’t meaningless and the driver’s due process rights were preserved. 

Manion also wrote the class’ unjust enrichment claim failed on the same legal grounds. The panel said Aspen determined the village was legally only directed — not mandated — to cite a specific ordinance on red light ticket notifications.

“We see no basis for overturning the presumption that this requirement is directory rather than mandatory,” Manion wrote. “Although the plaintiffs argue their right to be fully informed of an alleged violation would be injured by a directory reading, this is simply not the case. … Everything the plaintiffs needed to know to contest the violation was fully and clearly explained in the notice of violation itself.”

Knutson has been represented by attorneys Mark D. Roth and Kenneth Y. Hurst, of the firm of Roth Fioretti LLC, of Chicago. and attorney James J. Eccleston, of Eccleston Law LLC, of Chicago.

Lakemoor has been defended by attorneys Dominick L. Lanzito, Kevin M. Casey, Paul A. O'Grady and Shantel I. Perez, of the firm of Peterson Johnson & Murray - Chicago LLC, of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Law Office of Johnson Murray Peterson Roth Fioretti LLC U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Village of Lakemoor

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