Lawsuit seeks to block Emanuel's red-light camera do-over

- Mayor Rahm Emanuel should be stopped in his tracks from giving 1.5 million motorists a red-light camera ticket do-over because his after-the-fact fix to a problem with those tickets violates state law, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Two months after the City Council agreed to give drivers nailed by red-light and speed cameras a second chance to challenge their tickets, plaintiffs’ attorney Jacie Zolna wants a Cook County judge to overturn the ordinance, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting.

A judge has ruled — and the city has acknowledged — that it denied due process to the 1.5 million motorists by failing to send those drivers a second notice of their violations. The Emanuel administration further erred by imposing $100 late fees.

In September, aldermen agreed to correct those “procedural errors” in hopes it would bolster the city’s case against a lawsuit with the potential to force the city to refund $200 million in fines and late fees dating back to the 2003 inception of the scandal-scarred red-light camera program.

The lawsuit maintains the mayor’s ordinance is “at odds with virtually every procedural requirement” of the Illinois Vehicle Code and “completely undermines its purpose to ensure the ‘fair and efficient’ adjudication” of speed and red light camera violations.

“The city . . . cannot willy-nilly change its own laws to give itself a second opportunity to extract fines and penalties from its citizens. To the contrary, the city’s ability to enforce speed and red-light camera violations is specifically limited by Illinois law,” the lawsuit states.

Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey called the lawsuit “baseless.”

“It is clear that the notices of violation for each of the violations affected by the 2016 ordinance are valid under the Illinois Vehicle Code and the Municipal Code of Chicago, and the suit is challenging an ordinance that can only benefit the individuals represented in the suit,” McCaffrey said in an email.

“The new ordinance is not to designed to find any new violations of the traffic laws, but to give past violators an additional opportunity to challenge previously imposed liability.”

If the city issues second notices, motorists will have 30 days to choose whether to appear before an administrative hearing officer and challenge their tickets on grounds they were issued in error.

The five-year window — March 23, 2010, to May 14, 2015 — is tied to the statute of limitations and the date the city eliminated the second notice requirement in yet another, after-the-fact attempt to avoid liability.

The ordinance would also allow roughly 5,000 motorists who paid late fees too soon to get $100 refunds for those penalties paid in error. Those motorists would be given 60 days to make that request.

In September, Corporation Counsel Steve Patton contended the ordinance would “bolster our defense” and could “form the basis for a fair and reasonable settlement.” But he has maintained that a “procedural failure does not render a ticket invalid” and that there is no justification for blanket refunds.

“Those tickets are valid. The violation occurred. The red light was run. Somebody sped unless and until they go the Department of Administrative Hearings and show that’s not the case,” Patton told aldermen.

“What we’re talking about is a subsequent procedural error. And it shouldn’t be the opportunity for a gotcha to have a windfall for thousands and thousands of people to avoid any liability and get a refund.”

Zolna and his partner Myron Cherry have branded the ordinance “too little, too late” that will only invite more litigation and “add another chapter” to a red-light program built on a $2 million bribery scandal.

“For over a decade, the city failed to follow their own rules in providing people the proper notice. Then, they sped up liabilities and doubled fines prematurely. And here we are again. They get caught with their hands in the cookie jar, and all they want to do is keep changing the rules,” Zolna said.

“If they enforce this law, and try to collect under it, we’ll be able to recover that money. What you have now are two lawsuits that involve somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million. While the law generally doesn’t allow a double recovery, the way the city worded this new ordinance by creating new and separate liabilities leaves open the possibility that there could be two judgments for the same amount.”

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