This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ.

In less than 90 minutes on an October afternoon in 2014, Chicago police officers slapped three $200 tickets on a South Side woman’s 1999 Ford Expedition because she didn’t have a city vehicle sticker.

On at least three separate occasions in the past three years, a 27-year-old man from the Austin neighborhood received multiple tickets on the same day because his car didn’t have a city sticker.

And one spring afternoon last year, city records show, authorities gave a West Side couple a sticker ticket when their car was parked near a recreation center in the Fuller Park neighborhood, then again later that day outside their home in Austin.

What happened to these Chicagoans has happened to thousands of other city drivers. ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ analyzed data on tickets issued since January 2007 and identified nearly 20,000 incidents when the same vehicle received two, three, four — and, in one case, five — city sticker tickets on the same day.

Duplicate ticketing has long been viewed as a violation of a municipal ordinance that spells out penalties for vehicle owners who fail to comply with sticker requirements — both by parking enforcement aides and officials with the city clerk’s office, which runs the sticker program. A vehicle without a sticker can be cited “each and every day,” according to the ordinance.

After being presented with findings of the investigation by ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ, city officials said they asked the law department to examine the ordinance. Kristen Cabanban, a finance department spokeswoman, said the city is looking into “responsible next steps” that may include refunding money to drivers or canceling other unpaid tickets.

“We are taking this seriously,” she said in a written statement.

The city has collected $3.6 million from duplicate tickets over the past decade. Although that figure represents a fraction of the $291 million it has received for all sticker tickets, the duplicate tickets disproportionately affect the drivers in low-income and black communities, including many families struggling to get by, according to the analysis. This practice also reflects a system incapable of identifying when citations are inadvertently issued.

Among the ProPublica Illinois/WBEZ findings:

  • Majority black neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides — including West Englewood, Woodlawn and North Lawndale — see the highest rates of duplicate ticketing, a trend that mirrors broader disparities in where city sticker tickets are issued. Tickets issued by police drive those disparities.
  • In most cases, duplicate tickets were issued by different officers, parking enforcement aides or private contractors. But in one in nine cases, the same person issued the repeat tickets — often minutes apart. City officials said many tickets issued by the same person appear to have been in error but were not voided — leaving drivers on the hook to pay them.
  • Few drivers contest duplicate tickets. When they do, in most cases at least one of the tickets is thrown out.

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David Eads/ProPublica Illinois and Elliott Ramos/WBEZ

Cabanban blamed duplicate ticketing on outdated technology, saying the city’s existing ticketing software can’t tell parking enforcement aides, who use handheld devices to issue tickets, if a vehicle has already been ticketed by, say, police officers, who write tickets by hand. If a driver gets a ticket at one location, removes it and then moves their vehicle — as happened with the family from the West Side — city workers have no way of knowing.

The city is now negotiating a contract to replace its ticket management system and, according to Cabanban, plans to look into adding the capability to identify any tickets issued in error, including duplicates.

Roughly a third of duplicate tickets the city issued were paid. Nearly half remain unpaid, adding up to nearly $8 million in debt, according to the data, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The debt from duplicate sticker tickets will remain on the books — potentially threatening some drivers’ licenses and vehicles — unless the city recognizes the tickets were wrongly issued and dismisses them.

A Financial Burden

The West Side couple said they had recently moved back to the city from south suburban Calumet City and were saving to buy a city sticker when they got ticketed. They could only afford to pay one citation on time, they said, and no one told them the second ticket shouldn’t have been issued or that they could fight it. With late fees, the second ticket cost $488. They signed up for one of the city’s payment plans.

“Some of the stuff is our fault for not buying quickly,” said the husband, a 29-year-old admissions coordinator at a hospice company who asked not to be identified because his wife is a city worker and fears retaliation. “But it messed us up. Now I’ve got to squeeze out $400. That’s tough.”

Earlier this year, ProPublica Illinois reported how ticket debt sends thousands of Chicago drivers into bankruptcy each year. Sticker tickets were disproportionately involved in bankruptcies compared with other kinds of tickets.

The $200 sticker ticket stands out because it’s the most expensive commonly issued citation in the city — a few tickets cost more but are relatively rare — and because it’s not tied directly to public safety.

Chicago requires all vehicle owners who live in the city to buy stickers, which motorists affix to their vehicle’s windshield, as a so-called “wheel tax” each year — between $88 and $139 that officials say funds road maintenance and lighting. The cost of a city sticker is separate from the state’s $101 annual fee to renew an Illinois license plate.

Chicago police officers and the city’s finance department enforcement aides issued the majority of the nearly 2.5 million sticker tickets issued over the past decade, with duplicates representing about 1 percent of the total, the analysis found.

City officials did not dispute the ProPublica Illinois/WBEZ analysis showing disparities in rates of duplicate ticketing across Chicago’s 77 community areas. Finance department officials said “artificially higher” counts of sticker tickets issued by parking enforcement aides in South and West side neighborhoods may be due to the fact those areas have fewer parking meters or residential parking zones — meaning there are fewer other kinds of tickets to issue there.

Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in a statement that officers check for city stickers during all traffic stops, as well as when conducting parking enforcement. “While some neighborhoods across the city may have higher levels of compliance,” he said, “this type of enforcement is conducted in every single police district from the north side to the south and west.”

“Chicago Is Killing My Pockets”

Few motorists, according to the data, contest duplicate tickets, a process that requires showing up at a hearing or submitting a written explanation and evidence to an administrative law judge. But when they do, they stand a good chance of winning. In approximately 87 percent of the cases in which a motorist contested their ticket, at least one duplicate was thrown out, the analysis found.

“Even if you did nothing wrong and were issued a ticket errantly, the time it takes to contest a ticket and the time you need to take off work can make contesting the ticket prohibitive,” said Lauren Nolan, director of research at the Chicago-based Woodstock Institute, a nonprofit advocating for fair financial policy.

The group released a report last week on racial and economic disparities in Chicago ticketing.

The West Side couple did not appeal their tickets. The husband said he did not know it was an option. He and his wife bought a city sticker a few days after getting hit with the double tickets, city records show. They had to pay a $60 late penalty to the clerk’s office, and the sticker was backdated six months because they couldn’t prove they had moved in more recently.

That meant they had to buy another yearly sticker six months later. They did so the day the first sticker expired, afraid of getting another $200 ticket. And when the expiration date rolls around again this fall, they said, they’ll probably buy another.

The husband said he’d like to move out of the city. But he said they will likely stay in Chicago as long as his wife remains a city worker and they must abide by municipal residency requirements.

“Chicago,” he said, “is killing my pockets.”