Chicago mayor halts fines, fees for minor traffic tickets amid coronavirus pandemic
The city of Chicago has temporarily relaxed its controversial ticketing and towing scheme, as residents face worsening financial uncertainty in the midst of a global public health crisis.
Chicago considers residents carrying ticket debt “scofflaws,” but they’ll catch a break under an emergency executive order issued by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
As many residents face growing financial uncertainty amid a global coronavirus outbreak, the mayor announced on March 18 a series of temporary measures to suspend financial penalties for low-level infractions that can quickly devolve into people losing their cars.
The order will prioritize enforcement for “safety-related violations,” and offer financial reprieves to those who’ve already been penalized for violations that did not jeopardize public safety. Among those measures are:
- Suspension of the city’s controversial “booting” system
- Elimination of late fees on parking tickets, towing fees and citations issued by the city’s scandal-plagued red-light cameras
- Delaying driver’s license suspensions
- Delaying referrals to collections agencies for traffic ticket debt
- Not holding debt on new licenses and permits
The mayor’s executive order comes as the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, disrupts the world economy, with uncertainty causing markets to plunge and states’ emergency measures exposing businesses and residents to financial insecurity.
Chicago’s potentially unconstitutional booting and ticketing schemes fall disproportionately on low-income and minority residents, those whose livelihoods are most at risk during severe economic shocks.
“Booting,” the practice of immobilizing a vehicle by attaching a mechanical device to one of its wheels, can occur in Chicago after just two outstanding tickets. Those two infractions could be as benign as a $60 parking ticket and a $200 fine for a missing city sticker. It costs an additional $100 to remove the “boot.”
A joint investigation by ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ last year identified nearly 50,000 instances since 2011 in which the city seized – and then sold – Chicagoans’ cars to a private towing company, a practice observers call “tow-and-sell.”
The investigation found the “vast majority” of cars swept through the city’s tow-and-sell cycle came from the city’s low-income areas. Those areas have also seen a massive spike in filings for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, often the last resort for residents desperate to retrieve their impounded cars or suspended driver’s licenses.
Last year, Lightfoot proposed an ambitious overhaul of the city’s non-moving vehicle violations system.
Chicago is also home to the nation’s highest count of red-light camera devices. Unsurprisingly, it is also ground zero for corruption indictments involving red-light cameras, which have become a focal point of a sprawling federal corruption probe that has seen a string of indictments across local governments and at the Statehouse.
In 2016, a federal jury convicted former Chicago transportation official John Bills on all 20 counts of mail and wire fraud, bribery, extortion, conspiracy and tax evasion charges. Bills took hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and perks from Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. in exchange for helping the company win and maintain Chicago city contracts for its red-light camera system.
Bills’ sentence came two years after a Chicago Tribune report found the city at some intersections had shortened the duration of yellow lights, making citations more likely and potentially increasing rear-end collisions.
Multiple studies have since contradicted the purported safety benefits of red-light cameras. Nevertheless, an Illinois Policy Institute analysis last year found that red-light cameras have taken over $1 billion from Illinois drivers statewide. As Chicago has reduced its number of cameras, they have spread to the suburbs along with the associated corruption.
Lightfoot’s executive order took effect immediately and will remain active until April 30. In the meantime, city leaders should use this break to examine the flaws in Chicago’s ticketing system and decide whether taking cars away from the city’s most vulnerable is good public policy – even absent a public health crisis.