Civil Liberties

Illinois Appeals Court Rules Chicago Slapped Drivers With Illegally High Fines for Years

A plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit says he had to declare bankruptcy after Chicago dumped $20,000 of ticket debts on him.


Chicago has been hitting motorists with illegally high fines for years for not having up-to-date vehicle stickers, a state appellate court ruled Friday.

The Illinois First District Appellate Court found that Chicago has been flouting a state law that caps the amount it can fine drivers through its administrative court system at $250. The ruling came in a class-action lawsuit challenging the city's notoriously punitive ticketing regime, especially for vehicle stickers, which cost nearly $100 to renew every year and carry stiff fines for failing to keep them up to date.

"For far too long the city has used ticket fines to raise revenue at the expense of our most vulnerable citizens," Jacie Zolna, a lawyer representing the Chicago residents in the lawsuit, said in a press release. "Today's ruling is a victory for all working people in Chicago who have been unfairly burdened with the city's expensive and out of control ticketing."

At a press conference on the ruling, one of the lawsuit plaintiffs, Rodney Shelton, told reporters he fell deep into ticket debt after buying a car that failed an emissions test. Without passing the test, he couldn't get a vehicle sticker, and without a vehicle sticker, he kept getting ticketed, even though he wasn't driving the car. The Chicago Tribune reports:

Even though he parked the car in a private lot, he said, the city ticketed him dozens of times for not having the sticker until the fees and penalties reached about $20,000. He had to declare bankruptcy before he could start paying it back, he said.

"I look at it as the city being predators on the taxpayers," he said.

Chicago's rapacious use of fines and fees to generate revenue, particularly for minor traffic violations and nonmoving offenses, has been the subject of numerous news investigations, lawsuits, and calls for reform over the past several years.

A 2018 Reason investigation showed how the city's aggressive vehicle impound program seized residents' cars and soaked them in thousands of dollars in fines and fees, regardless of their ability to pay and even when they were declared innocent in state court. WBEZ reported that Chicago has seized 250,000 cars since 2010, imposing $600 million in debt on owners. The news outlet also discovered that motorists' debts were sometimes inflated due to a combination of computer and data-entry errors.

ProPublica reported that the rising costs of vehicle stickers specifically, and fines for not having them, were driving low-income motorists into debt and bankruptcy. The outlet also found that the city had been issuing duplicate tickets to motorists for vehicle sticker violations, leading the city to throw out 23,000 tickets.

In 2020, the Chicago City Council voted to partially reform its vehicle impound program. The City Council also approved a $5 million settlement to end a class-action lawsuit alleging that Chicago encouraged lenders to repossess impounded cars.

In the 1990s, the Illinois Legislature allowed Chicago to route minor traffic violations and tickets through an administrative system to ease the enormous burden all of the cases created on court dockets. But since the administrative system had a lower burden of proof than a criminal courtroom, the state Legislature capped the fines at no more than $250 to preserve due process rights. As the plaintiffs' lawsuit argues, "if a municipal code violation is minor enough to justify administrative adjudication, the penalty for the violation must be minor as well."

The lawsuit alleges that the $200 fine for failing to display a sticker, combined with the $200 late fee if the fine is not paid within 25 days, violated that cap. Chicago dropped the late fee to $50 in 2019 as part of a broader reform of its ticketing practices, but the lawsuit argues that many Chicagoans are still burdened with debt because the city unlawfully overcharged them. The class-action suit seeks to refund those who paid off illegal fines and erase the debts of those who still owe. Zolna said the suit, in light of the appellate court ruling, could implicate hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket debt.

The city of Chicago argued that the $250 cap was a drafting error by the Legislature and that the real cap was $500, but the appellate court rejected its argument. The appeals court ruling reversed a lower court order dismissing the lawsuit and remanded it for further proceedings.