At first, we thought it was a typo, a misplaced decimal. Bankruptcy records showed that a woman from Chicago’s South Side owed the city $102,158.40 for unpaid tickets. Could one person really rack up that much ticket debt?
“Nobody will believe me,” she later told me. “But every single year, they send me 30 pages in an envelope with all the tickets. I just throw it away. I don’t look at it. It’s really stressful. You don’t understand how stressful it is to be in debt.”
I’ve spent the past five months going down one avenue after another to figure out why thousands of Chicago drivers turn to Chapter 13 bankruptcy to cope with debt stemming from parking and traffic camera tickets. We published our story this week in partnership with Mother Jones.
The woman didn’t make it into the story, but our conversations haunt me.
As reporters, we often talk to more people than we’ll ever include in a story. It’s part of the research, just like reading the archives, crunching the numbers, wading through court files.
We have to make hard choices about who ends up in a story and who doesn’t. I left out the $102,158.40 woman for a number of reasons, including that we prefer not to use anonymous sources and she was too ashamed to be identified.
More than anything, I worried readers would see her as emblematic of this cycle of ticket debt and bankruptcy when, in reality, most people with ticket debt owe significantly less. The typical debt to the city for people who, in 2017, filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy was approximately $3,900, according to our analysis of federal bankruptcy files.
But I want to tell you a little bit about her, and about some of the other people I spoke with, because though they were not in the story, they helped inform it. According to city records, this woman has gotten 298 tickets since 2011. More than half are $200 tickets for not having a required city sticker. After a couple of months, unpaid tickets double and eventually accrue a 22 percent collection fee, turning a $200 citation into a $488 debt.
She said she used to make $300 a week as a restaurant cook and couldn’t afford to get an annual sticker, which costs $87 for most passenger vehicles. Now, she said, she makes $11.50 an hour as an ambulance driver.
“There’s no way I could afford my rent, take care of my kids, and pay tickets,” she said.
It no longer surprises me to learn that people bury their heads in the sand when they’re drowning in this kind of debt.
This woman filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy last year, mostly to hold onto her driver’s license. Without it, she would lose her ambulance job.
I met others who filed for bankruptcy to prevent the city from taking away their licenses, or to reinstate a license that had been suspended. Drivers who accumulate five unpaid traffic camera tickets or 10 unpaid parking tickets risk losing their license in Illinois.
Some employers — including the city and its sister agencies — won’t hire applicants who have debts to the city, including unpaid tickets. When I met Sharron Lee in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in October, she was wearing a lanyard for Harris & Harris, a company the city contracts with to collect ticket debt.
I thought she might be there as a debt collector. Turned out she owed the city about $11,000 in unpaid tickets herself, according to bankruptcy records. She’d filed for bankruptcy to qualify for a job as a firm debt collector.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Lee, who has filed for bankruptcy more than a half-dozen times in the past decade. “A lot of people are in debt or filing for bankruptcy because of tickets.”
We’ve profiled a few more people who have struggled with the consequences of their unpaid tickets. Some managed to pay off their debts; others are now in bankruptcy court.
You can read their stories. By sharing them, we hope to start a conversation about how Chicago’s ticketing and debt collection affect people’s lives.
If you have a story to share about how ticket debt has affected you, I’d love to hear about your experiences. As I continue reporting on Chicago tickets, license suspensions and other kinds of debt to government agencies, please reach out if you have story ideas or tips. I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org.