This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ.
Chicago’s most powerful alderman on Tuesday joined the growing chorus of leaders calling for reforms to the city’s ticketing and debt collection, introducing a measure to substantially limit the decades-old practice of seeking driver’s license suspensions over unpaid tickets.
The proposal from Finance Committee Chairman Ed Burke would require the city to take into account motorists’ income before taking away their driving privileges and create more affordable payment plans for them.
Burke’s proposal was the latest in a series of reforms that aim to respond to growing public pressure over the way Chicago punishes motorists who can’t afford to pay tickets.
“The impact of license suspensions truly hurts lower-income residents the hardest because of an inability they have to pay these steep ticket fines,” Burke, who represents the 14th Ward on the city’s Southwest Side, told the Finance Committee. “For many motorists, the loss of the privilege to drive equates to higher unemployment, and in worst-case scenarios, Chapter 13 bankruptcy filings become necessary in order to protect licenses and vehicles required to get to work.”
ProPublica Illinois has been reporting all year — including more recently in collaboration with WBEZ — on how unpaid tickets send thousands of mostly black Chicagoans into bankruptcy, a phenomenon seen nowhere else in the country. Bankruptcy gives motorists whose licenses have been suspended because of ticket debt the ability to get them back, in addition to other legal protections.
State law allows municipalities to seek license suspensions after drivers have racked up 10 unpaid parking tickets, or five unpaid tickets from red-light or speed cameras. Black motorists from Chicago’s South and West sides bore the brunt of the more than 21,000 license suspensions issued across the state last year, ProPublica Illinois found in March.
Burke’s proposal did not go to a vote Tuesday. But it was discussed at length along with a proposal from Alderman Gilbert Villegas introduced last month that would drastically reduce late penalties and create a community service alternative to debt repayment.
Villegas, who is the alderman for the Northwest Side’s 36th Ward and chairs the City Council’s Latino Caucus, said he will work with Burke to combine the best of both proposals to “see if we can move forward with one. But I’m prepared to go with mine alone, as is.”
“I’m glad to see that some of my colleagues are starting to come around,” he added.
City Council elections will be held in February.
A spokesman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Officials from the Finance Department, which oversees much of the city’s ticketing and debt collection program, said they had not reviewed Burke’s proposal and were unable to comment.
The proposal from Burke is similar to legislation that passed the state Senate but stalled in the House this year and has been championed by the nonprofit Chicago Jobs Council. The city of Chicago, which relies on the threat of suspending licenses to get motorists to pay their tickets, was the bill’s biggest opponent.
Both the legislation and Burke’s proposal would give drivers threatened with license suspension the right to ask for a hearing to show that they can’t afford to pay their debt. Depending on their income, motorists would pay between 0.5 percent and 5 percent of their average monthly income toward their ticket debt for up to five years. The down payment to enroll in a city payment plan would be eliminated.
Currently, Chicago drivers with substantial ticket debt must pay up to $1,000 just to get on the city’s most lenient payment plans. Many drivers can’t afford the down payment and file for no-money-down bankruptcies instead.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Eric Halvorson, the policy and communications associate for the Jobs Council, told aldermen that license suspensions are an impediment for poor people to obtain jobs and get to work.
“Way too often we’re hearing they have a license that’s suspended, and it’s suspended because they’re stuck in a debt trap they cannot find a way out of,” Halvorson said. “And when they try to make some kinds of payment to get out of this, they’re not able to afford it.”
In recent years, several states have rethought laws that suspend driver’s licenses over debt, sometimes in response to lawsuits or the threat of litigation. Last month, for example, a federal judge ruled that Tennessee must stop suspending driver’s licenses over traffic fines without first considering motorists’ ability to pay.
There has been no such litigation filed in Illinois. Jacie Zolna, a Chicago lawyer who has sued the city on several occasions over ticketing, said he has been studying the possibility of filing a lawsuit over license suspensions. Zolna, who successfully sued Chicago in a multimillion-dollar class action over the city’s red-light cameras, said he’s heard from “literally thousands of people” who have lost their licenses or have been threatened with suspension over ticket debt.
Zolna is currently suing the city in an ongoing case alleging its steep financial penalties violate state law. In its response, the city has cited its home-rule authority, among other matters, to defend the fines.
“Taking someone’s license away for parking tickets without any inquiry as to whether they have any ability to pay is unconstitutional,” Zolna said. “It’s really the equivalent of a debtors’ prison. People aren’t going to jail, necessarily, but they are getting their licenses taken away for no other reason than being poor.”
Burke cited as inspiration for his measure a recent proposal from City Clerk Anna Valencia that’s aimed at helping low-income motorists come into compliance with a city requirement to purchase an annual vehicle sticker. Her proposal, which would create four-month stickers at a prorated price, is intended to reduce the volume of $200 tickets issued for noncompliance.
Valencia’s proposal was triggered by a ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ investigation that found significant disparities in where sticker citations are issued, with neighborhoods that are predominantly black getting hit the hardest.
Meanwhile, the city’s Law Department has proposed significant debt relief for motorists who file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7. The move is intended to reduce the number of motorists who file under Chapter 13, a lengthy process that frequently ends without any debt relief. Chapter 7 bankruptcy is nearly always successful.
Both Valencia’s and the Law Department’s proposals will be voted on Wednesday as part of the 2019 city budget.
Community groups that have been calling for an overhaul of the Chicago’s ticketing system for months said they are glad to see traction on the issue but they called on the city to do more. Parent leaders from Community Organizing and Family Issues spoke on the issue Tuesday; one woman described having to take out a loan to pay off her tickets.
Tracy Occomy Crowder, the group’s senior organizer, said the city could bring in more money by making payment plans more affordable.
“There’s a growing realization in the public that, ‘Hey, the system that we have right now, we have to think about how to take some steps to make sure families are not suffering unnecessarily,’” she said. “When parents talk amongst themselves, what they talk about is the willingness, the desire, to actually pay, but their inability to do so because of the way payment plans are structured.”