Red Light Cameras Legal in Chicago, Illinois Appellate Court Rules

By Mike Brockway on January 31, 2013 7:04am 

 One of Chicago's nearly 400 red light cameras stands watch at the corner of Damen and Division in Wicker Park.
One of Chicago's nearly 400 red light cameras stands watch at the corner of Damen and Division in Wicker Park.
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Since 2010, a group of Chicago drivers has been quietly challenging the legality of Chicago's red light camera program in a class action lawsuit.

But this past week, the plaintiffs' case was dealt a major blow when the First District of the Illinois Appellate Court unanimously upheld a previous ruling by the Cook County Circuit Court, which dismissed the lawsuit in 2011.

"We are pleased that the appellate court has upheld the validity of our ordinance and dismissed this case in its entirety," said Chicago Law Department spokesman Roderick Drew.

The lawsuit claims the city did not have the legal right to establish its red light camera program when it was first created. That's because the original RLC ordinance was passed in 2003, before the State of Illinois had a law on the books permitting this type of automated traffic enforcement.

The lawsuit also argues the city lacked home rule authority to do so, claiming the Illinois Vehicle Code did not permit this type of enforcement at the time. Home rule is the ability for municipalities with populations over 25,000 to pass laws that might normally be issued at the state level.

The State of Illinois eventually passed a law allowing red light cameras for municipalities within just eight counties: Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, Madison, Will, McHenry and St. Clair.

But the lawsuit goes on to contend that not only were the red light camera tickets issued by the city between 2003 and 2006 invalid, but every red light camera violation the city has ever issued is invalid because Chicago never drafted a new ordinance after the state enacted its red light camera law in 2006.

"We're obviously disappointed with the court's decision," said Patrick Keating of the Simmons Law Firm. "Our position is that at the time Chicago enacted it's red light camera ordinance in 2003, state law prohibited municipalities from adjudicating moving violations through their municipal administration hearing process. We believe the great of authority supports that."

Barnet Fagel, a traffic safety expert for the National Motorists Association and longtime critic of Chicago's RLC program is unhappy with the court's decision as well.

"The interpretation, in my un-legal opinion, is wrong," said Fagel who's been closely following the the case. "I feel they fashioned an argument to fit the case. Just because there was no specific law prohibiting it [red light camera enforcement] doesn't give the city a right to enact an ordinance. Because the state has the primary responsibility for the vehicle code, the city can't just step on the state's toes."

Ron Burke, Executive Director of the Active Transportation Alliance says his group is pleased with the decision.

Active Trans, which works to promote better and safer biking, walking and transit, and has advocated for both red light and speed camera enforcement in the past as long as it's based on reducing crashes and not on generating revenue.

"Proper use of automated enforcement improves traffic safety, and that should be the goal rather than raising money," said Burke.

Another one of the lawsuit's contention was that Chicago's red light camera ordinance was a regulation governing moving violations, an area of the law where state law would take precedence.

The court disagreed, and in the opinion written by Justice Aurelia Pucinski, says RLC violations are not the same as moving violations.

"Although the red light cameras are triggered by the movement of vehicles through a red light, the camera is capturing a moment in time depicting the vehicle's use in disobeying a redlight signal," reads the opinion.

Fagel scoffs at the court's interpretation because the main component of the evidence the city uses to issue red light camera violations is video footage documenting the vehicle while in motion, running through the red light.

"When is a moving violation not a moving violation?" asks Fagel facetiously. "When Chicago gets to decide. Just because they classify it as a civil action doesn't mean it's not a moving violation. That [legal definition] is just for administrative purposes."

Keating wouldn't say whether his law firm planned on appealing the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court.

"We obviously considering our options," said Keating.

The Simmons Law Firm filed a separate class action lawsuit against Chicago's red light camera program last summer.

Chicago is considered the red light camera capital of the U.S. with 384 cameras posted at 191 separate intersections. The program generates close to $70 million a year in revenue.

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