(CN) — Under Chicago’s distracted-driving statute, drivers can rack up cash penalties and even lose their license for using electronic devices like cellphones behind the wheel, but the law’s opponents complain they can’t fight violations in a regular court.
Instead, three drivers allege in a class-action lawsuit, the process goes through an unaccountable administrative system where a ticket is proof of guilt and police never have to take the witness stand.
Rabbi Aaron Potek and two other named drivers — Adina Klein and Stephen Michelini — challenged the 7-year-old system in Cook County Circuit Court on Tuesday.
“In this so-called ‘administrative’ system, a driver’s guilt or innocence is determined by an unelected ‘administrative law officer’ who is literally on the city’s payroll,” the 19-page lawsuit states.
“During these so-called hearings, the rules of evidence do not apply,” it continues.
The drivers estimate that they represent “many tens of thousands” of people allegedly forced to forfeit their presumption of innocence and their right to confront their accusers.
“Incredibly, under the city’s private rules of justice, the ticket itself is prima facie evidence of guilt, even without any corroborating video or other evidence,” the lawsuit states. “In other words, an accusation of guilt is proof of guilt even without the testimony of the accuser. With the deck thus stacked in its favor, the city can’t lose.”
Potek and his named co-plaintiffs said they had to pay $90 to $100 fines, and Klein had to tack on a $20 administration fee.
Illinois first enacted its distracted-driving statute in 2009, which originally gave drivers an opportunity to fight tickets in state court.
Chicago’s law dates back four years earlier, but the challenged statute comes from an amended version in effect since Jan. 1, 2010.
“Rather than send alleged ordinance violators to state traffic court, the city misrouted allegedly distracted drivers to the city’s private ‘administrative’ justice system,” the complaint states. “The reason was simple: money.”
The drivers’ attorney, Jacie Zolna from the Chicago-based firm Myron M. Cherry & Associates LLC, demands a class award equal to all funds the city collected, an amount that he projected would add up to tens of millions of dollars.
“Lying and stealing from citizens is not a way to make up for your financial shortfalls,” he said in a phone interview.
Zolna does not deny that distracted driving is a serious problem in the Windy City.
The Chicago Tribune reported last year that traffic fatalities nationwide had been on pace to reach 40,000, their highest total since 2007.
But, according to Zolna, Chicago’s response aggravated the problem by breeding cynicism.
“What they’re doing here undermines every purpose of that law,” he said. “It undermines safety. It undermines the protections that accused individuals are afforded, and it undermines the confidence that the city will do what’s right.”
The city of Chicago Law Department did not answer repeated telephone calls to their main office on Tuesday.