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A State Senator Had Thousands of Dollars in Ticket Debt. Now She’s Fighting to Make Sure Others Won’t.

Our Q+A with Illinois state Sen. Celina Villanueva, who introduced a bill to end driver’s license suspensions for unpaid red-light tickets.

A red-light camera at a Chicago intersection, pictured in 2014. (Stacy Thacker/AP)

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If you’re reading this, you probably know I’ve reported extensively on Chicago’s system of ticketing and debt collection, how it’s disproportionately hurt black drivers and prompted tens of thousands of bankruptcies. The reporting, which eventually became a collaboration with our friends at WBEZ Chicago, has led to significant reforms, including some debt relief from the city, more affordable payment plans and a state law ending license suspensions over unpaid parking tickets.

Well, here’s another potential reform to add to the list: A few weeks ago, Illinois state Sen. Celina Villanueva, a Chicago Democrat, introduced legislation to end driver’s license suspensions for unpaid red-light camera tickets. Five unpaid camera tickets can trigger a suspension. (Note that this really isn’t a road safety issue as you can get 100 camera tickets but not risk losing your driving privileges if you can afford to pay them.) State officials told me this week that more than 13,000 drivers currently have their licenses suspended because of unpaid camera tickets.

I met Villanueva last month at an event organized by Reform for Illinois, a good government group, and was surprised to hear her speak publicly and so candidly about how ticket debt had affected her own life. So this week I reached out to ask how her personal story had influenced her legislation.

She told me the timing was right, in part because of an ongoing federal public corruption investigation into red-light camera companies. (Her predecessor, Martin Sandoval, pleaded guilty last month to taking bribes in the case.) But she also saw this as an important issue that affects working-class residents across the state.

Here’s some of our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity:

Why introduce this bill now?

Sen. Celina Villanueva (Illinois Senate Democratic Caucus)

Villanueva: It was a perfect storm with the corruption issue. Was your interest [in supporting red-light cameras] really public safety or was it padding your own pockets, making money off the backs of working-class people? And why are we still suspending people’s driver’s licenses if we’ve passed a law ending suspensions over regular parking ticket debt?

People are going into debt because of these red-light camera tickets, which cost $100 or more, and then double [with late fees]. That’s hard, especially for poor people or working-class people who don’t have disposable income.

I heard you speak not too long ago about how these issues hit home for you on a personal level. Can you tell me what happened?

Villanueva: I had a car a few years ago that was at the end of its life. It was breaking down on me every couple of months, and fixing it up was costing more than the vehicle itself.

The city sticker was also about to lapse, so I thought, I’m going to get rid of this car. I called to have it taken to the junkyard. In the meantime, my car was parked in front of my house. I can’t move the car, it’s broken down, and I start getting tickets.

I was living paycheck to paycheck, working as an immigrant rights activist. Any extra money I had was going to bring down credit card and student loan debt, and paying my bills. But these tickets kept doubling and, all of the sudden, I ended up with $3,000-plus in ticket debt. A couple of the tickets were red-light camera tickets.

How did you pay them off?

Villanueva: I barely had a couple extra hundred dollars to my name. I looked at the payment plans, but they were asking for about $1,500 down. It would take me a whole year to save up that amount. I looked into bankruptcy, did some research online. I didn’t want to file. That would have affected everything else in my life.

But I had to do something because I didn’t want my license suspended. I knew that pretty soon I would need to get another car. My job was ramping up and I knew I would be spending a lot of time in the suburbs. Taking public transportation to the suburbs is not reliable.

I had a very small retirement plan with my job. People take out loans against their retirement plans to make a down payment for a house. I did it to pay off tickets. If it wasn’t for that, I honestly don’t know where I would be right now.

Do you see potential for more reforms related to government debt collection and other systems of fines and fees?

Villanueva: There is definitely an opportunity. Obviously the state of Illinois has been in a difficult financial situation for the past few years that we’re trying to do get ourselves out of. We’re looking for new revenue sources.

But I think it’s also really important that we’re not creating punitive fines that harm people. We have to get away from trying to collect $10, $100 from every single time we say you’re falling out of line or you did this wrong, and then not giving people an opportunity to work and pay off the fine because we’ve suspended their license. What we’re doing is creating and reinforcing cycles of poverty and that’s not OK.

Illinois state Sen. Celina Villanueva represents the 11th District, on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

At last check, Villanueva’s bill had 10 cosponsors, all but one of whom are Democrats. No hearings have been scheduled and no opposition has been filed, though it’s early in the session. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration has not yet taken a position, though last month Pritzker said the issue was “absolutely worthy of consideration.”

The biggest opposition will likely come from the municipalities that rely on the threat of license suspension to pressure indebted motorists to pay camera citations, thereby generating needed revenue. Historically these suspensions have disproportionately hurt Chicago residents from majority black neighborhoods, ProPublica Illinois previously found.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the city said that “while the city is still reviewing the bill, we commend lawmakers and advocates for offering up additional ideas to help lift the burden of debt for those hit hardest in Chicago and all around the state.”

Here are a couple other bits of ticket-related news I want to share with you:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court has [scheduled arguments on a case]( that started with a city of Chicago legal strategy aimed at discouraging motorists with ticket debt from filing for bankruptcy. Starting in 2017, the city stopped immediately returning impounded vehicles to motorists who filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. A federal appeals court said last summer that the city was [violating the basic protections of bankruptcy]( and doing it mostly to generate revenue.

    Without getting too deep in the weeds, the Supreme Court is essentially being asked whether creditors of all sorts are allowed to hang onto property after someone files for bankruptcy, without violating a legal protection known as the automatic stay. But given that this all started here in Chicago, where tens of thousands of people have filed for bankruptcy to cope with the crushing consequences of ticket debt — including the loss of their licenses or vehicles — we’ll be paying attention.

  • On a related note, the city of Chicago and its towing contractor were sued in federal court this week over the impound program. [The lawsuit,]( which seeks class-action status, claims the city’s practice of towing, impounding and eventually selling off thousands of vehicles over unpaid tickets is unconstitutional. “Even if it sells the vehicle, *none* of the proceeds are paid to the owner,” attorney Jacie Zolna writes in the lawsuit. “Incredibly, the City does not even off-set the owner’s debts by the amount of the sale. It simply takes it all for itself and leaves the former owner’s debt as it is.”

    In a statement, a city spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit but said Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is “actively working to evaluate the city’s complex impound systems to find ways to enhance them and ensure that residents aren’t losing their cars simply due to inability to pay.”

    [Read this story]( on the lawsuit by [WBEZ data editor Elliott Ramos](, my collaborator on a lot of the ticketing reporting. Elliott has [separately investigated]( the city’s massive towing and impound program, and his reporting is cited heavily in the lawsuit. (If you haven’t checked it out, please do so even just to see the insane drone footage of one of the city’s huge impound lots.)

As always, please send us tips or questions, or drop me a line at [email protected].

Correction, March 11, 2020: This story originally described incorrectly the legislation that Illinois state Sen. Celina Villanueva had sponsored. It would only end driver’s license suspensions over red-light camera ticket debt, not speed camera ticket debt.

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