Chicago driving ticket lawsuit worth $20M granted class action status

If you're one of the 90,000 people ticketed by Chicago police for using a cell phone while driving, there's a chance you might be part of a new class action lawsuit. 

The suit, approved by a Cook County judge Friday, alleges the city illegally collected millions of dollars in fines it wasn't entitled to.

"The whole purpose of this [hands-free] law is to remove dangerous drivers from the road," said attorney Jacie Zolna, one of several attorneys involved in the class action lawsuit. 

But instead of public safety, Zolna said the city of Chicago used the hands-free cellphone law as a cash cow ready for milking. 

"They got caught with their hand in the cookie jar," said Zolna.

The class action lawsuit alleges Chicago police officers wrote some 90,000 tickets for cell phone use while driving in 2014 and 2015. 

But rather than sending those cases to the county circuit court for prosecution as required by state law, the city instead funneled those tickets to its own department of administrative hearings for judgment.

The attorneys say that made it harder for drivers to contest their tickets and allowed the city to keep tens of millions of dollars in fines instead of sending that money to the state. 

"They knew it was wrong. They knew they didn't get to take the money," said attorney Ben Swetland. "But they kept taking it anyway. For years, to the tune of millions of dollars from its own citizens."

To back up that claim, they say they've found a smoking gun 2015 internal memo from Chicago police, which orders officers to stop writing the violation as a municipal ticket. Despite that, the lawsuit says, the city continued collecting fines on tickets that had already been written.


The attorneys said it was clear the city really wasn't interested in public safety, because when they got caught, police officers simply stopped writing the tickets. 

"Once they got caught and they started sending them to the circuit court where they belonged, they stopped enforcing the law altogether," Zolna said. "Once they could no longer make money they simply stopped enforcing this law."

In a brief statement, a spokesperson for the Chicago Law Department said the city doesn't comment on ongoing litigation.

The lawyers say if you got a ticket for driving while using a cell phone in 2014 or 2015 expect to get a letter as part of the class action lawsuit.