Chicago’s Red Light Cameras In Supreme Court Spotlight
Keating is the lead attorney on a class action lawsuit challenging the validity of Chicago’s behemoth of a red light camera enforcement program–a case which the Illinois Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Wednesday.
The lawsuit has been working its way up the legal food chain the past few years will get its proverbial day in court at the historical Ottawa Courthouse starting at 11 AM.
Depending on how they rule, the Supreme Court could open up Chicago to the possibility of having to refund tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars in red light camera fines collected over the years.
Chicago has bragging rights to having the nation’s and perhaps the world’s largest red light camera enforcement program. At its peak it had 384 cameras at 191 intersections and has generated over half a billion in revenue for the city over the past 11 years since it’s inception in 2003.
But Keating’s suit contends there are major legal flaws with Chicago’s red light camera enforcement–legal issues at odds with the Illinois constitution.
His red light camera odyssey began four years ago when after a bright flash, Keating’s wife Elizabeth received a $100 red light camera ticket in the mail.
Something didn’t smell right to his legally trained nose. So Keating began researching and researching.
“I couldn’t believe this was right so I began looking into it,” explains Keating. “And it was like an onion, the more I peeled away the more I found.”
Keating filed the class action suit in 2010 in Cook County Circuit Court, amended his filing in early 2011, but it got dismissed. This ruling was upheld by the Appellate Court in 2013and then lost on appeal in the Appellate Court in 2013.
What Keating found, and what the lawsuit contends is that when Chicago first instituted its red light camera program in 2003 there was no law on the books at the state level that enabled municipalities to use this type of enforcement. Before Mayor Rahm Emanuel began Chicago’s speed camera program, he made sure Sprinfield passed a state law first.
Keating believes the city realized it’s mistake in 2005 when it began pushing Chicago-friendly legislators to introduce bills in the Illinois General Assembly which would retrofit red light cameras into the Illinois compiled statues and hopefully give the city cover against guys like him.
The city’s Law Department, of course has a contrary view and says this lawsuit has no merit.
The city points to what’s called home-rule authority and didn’t need a state law to issue red light tickets according to spokesperson Shannon Braymaier. Home-rule gives larger municipalities of a certain population the ability to pass legislation particular to a its specific locale to meet local needs without the state’s blessing.
But Keating doesn’t believe home-rule applies to an issue that should be covered under the Illinois vehicle code which requires that traffic laws must be uniform across the state.
This concept of uniformity of traffic law is the reason that all stop signs are red, motorists drive on the right side of the roadway and that every vehicle must conform to the same set of rules when being operated. This uniformity allows for motorists to know how to behave when driving on roads in every town and county in the state and is instructive how enforcement is fairly applied to all motorists no matter where they may be driving.
Ultimately in 2006, a bill got passed which legally allowed for Chicago and other municipalities in select counties to use this type of automated photo enforcement. It was only after this law was passed in 2006 that red light camera enforcement expanded in the handful of counties allowed use this type of automated camera enforcement.
But according to Keating, the new law didn’t solve Chicago’s problem.
First off, he says the city never reenacted it’s current RLC laws to be consistent with the state law. He thinks Chicago can’t change the law because by doing so it would admit the original ordinance from 2003 was not legal.
Braymaier says the ordinance is valid without reenactment.
“There is no legal requirement for a home-rule unit like the City to reenact an ordinance after state authorization by an enabling act,” Braymaier explains. “Moreover, the City amended the ordinance several times after the statute was enacted, which effectively reenacted the ordinance.”
Keating also believes that the law smacks of political gerrymandering as Illinois State Senate leader John Cullerton was only able to get it passed by creatively tinkering with the bill.
When the first bill was introduced, it would have allowed any municipality in the state to use this type of enforcement. But downstate politicians and Republicans weren’t interested or even hostile to the idea of red light camera enforcement. The first bill was defeated by just a few votes in the state Senate.
Only after severely restricting the number of counties which could use red light cameras could the bill get passed out of the Senate by a single vote in 2006. It subsequently became law.
It is the laws restriction to only municipalities located within eight of the state’s 102 counties that Keating thinks is at odds with the Illinois State Constitution. He says the state constitution requires state laws must apply to everyone within the state–not just select persons or locales.
So what are the odds Keating’s lawsuit will succeed?
Keating points to Minnesota.
Similar to Chicago, back in 2005 Minneapolis started a red light camera enforcement program without the state of Minnesota enacting a law allowing for it.
Less than two years later the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Minneapolis’ program was unconstitutional and it was ordered to refund nearly $3 million in fines to aggrieved motorists.
While Keating says if the Supreme Court rules against the city, it could strike down portions or all of Chicago’s or state’s red light camera laws. However the most likely outcome if the court rules for the plaintiffs is allowing this class action lawsuit proceed at the Circuit Court level.
Will the city be on the hook to payback a few hundred million bucks to drivers? Only the Illinois Supreme Court knows.
Oral arguments in Keating v. City of Chicago will begin at 11 AM Wednesday at the Ottawa Courthouse.
Live audio streaming is available here.