Chicago Settles Red Light Ticket Class Action Suit
By Sean Lally, Staff Writer
In late July, the City of Chicago’s city council accepted a $38.75 million settlement to be paid to recipients of speeding and red light tickets. Nearly 1.2 million people were subject to fines after being caught on camera racing through red lights and exceeding the speed limit on city streets. The traffic cameras were installed in 2003 and have since been the cause of stress for city residents. One study found that the cameras increased rear-end collisions by 22 percent and had almost no effect at intersections that never had problems to begin with.
Plaintiffs claimed that the city did not give enough notice to residents before rendering guilty verdicts. According to a local ordinance that expired in 2015, city denizens were to be given two notifications prior to being fined. In the cases at hand, only one notice was given before the expiration of the ordinance, and in many cases, a $100 late fee was added to fines four days too early. Such a failure, the suit claimed, constituted a lack of due process for ticket recipients.
Breakdown of Payment
Those included in the lawsuit – people who received fines between 2010 and 2015 – will receive a letter informing them of their inclusion in the suit. They will likely receive a check in 2018. Some members of the class-action suit will receive a 50 percent reimbursement for paid fines – $26.75 million has been apportioned for that purpose – and others will be absolved of half their debt – $12 million has been allotted for debt.
Mayor Emanuel’s Response
Mayor Rahm Emanuel admitted that he was responsible for the grievous misconduct. “I take responsibility that, under my tenure […] the continuity of the way it operated was wrong,“ he told the Chicago Sun Times. “That said this system does save lives where a lot of people have questioned that before.” But after being asked if he would apologize, he responded, “It’s implicit in the payment. As well as explicit because otherwise, we wouldn’t have agreed to it.”
Avoiding Further Monetary Damage
According to Ed Siskel, Corporation Counsel for the city, it was better to accept the settlement than to risk the great losses that would have resulted from a court case. He estimated that the city would have paid as much as $264 million to refund paid fines. Additionally, he noted, Chicago would have been prevented from collecting nearly $164 million in related debt. And that’s only if the court accepted the statute of limitations. According to the city, the suit only covered tickets distributed between 2010 and 2015, but if the court refused that timeframe, the city could have ended up paying nearly $700 million.
The city has been trying to avoid refunding its residents. In September 2016, a year after the suit was filed, the city implemented a new ordinance requiring a second notice to be sent to the class-action members. The second notification gave ticket recipients a chance to argue against the fine. This, the city contended, sufficiently addressed the concerns brought forth by the suit.
Jacie Zolna, attorney for the Plaintiffs, disagreed. "When they passed that law and did that sneaky move, it just emboldened me," he said. "I decided I wouldn't let them try to do that."
Certain members of city council seized on the occasion for their own political purposes. Alderman Anthony Beale observed that the settlement was more or less proof of the damaging effects of the red-light cameras. "What I can tell you is, 'I told you so,'" he said. "If you recall, years ago I said the whole red light camera issue was more about revenue than it was about public safety."
To pay residents, the city will be drawing from a $20 million settlement involving RedFlex, the city’s first red-light camera vendor. It was discovered in 2012 that the company had been bribing city officials in order to get more cameras installed.
Looking forward, there are some who will continue to lobby for the total abolition of traffic cameras in the city.