Illinois Supreme Court to Decide If Municipal Red Light Camera Ordinances are Constitutional

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Our previews of the latest additions to the civil docket of the Illinois Supreme Court continue today with Keating v. City of ChicagoKeating presents an issue bound to catch the attention of motorists in Illinois’ larger cities: are municipal red-light ordinances constitutional?

Chicago has had a red light ordinance since July 2003. The ordinances work on a simple idea. Rather than relying on patrol officers happening to catch red light violators in the act, automated cameras are set up at busy intersections, fitted with sensors to detect vehicles in the intersection. When the cameras detect a violation, the registered owner of the vehicle is sent copies of the photos and instructions as to how to contest liability or pay the fine.

By 2006, questions had arisen as to whether red light ordinances were legal. As a result, the state legislature passed an enabling act, specifically authorizing red light camera programs in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, Madison, McHenry, St. Clair and Will County.

Most of the plaintiffs in Keating are registered vehicle owners who received red light violation citations from the City of Chicago. Plaintiffs paid their fines, although at least some of them contested liability. They then filed suit alleging that (1) the City lacked home rule authority to enact the red light ordinance; and (2) the 2006 enabling act was unconstitutional special legislation. The plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment striking down the ordinance, an injunction stopping the City’s collection of fines and an order requiring restitution to all past violators. The Circuit Court granted the City’s motion to dismiss, holding that two plaintiffs lacked standing, that the enabling act was not special legislation, and that the voluntary payment doctrine barred all claims anyway since the plaintiffs had paid their fines.

On appeal, the plaintiffs raised four related arguments: (1) the enabling act is unconstitutional; (2) the City’s red light camera ordinance was void from its inception and the enabling act did not and could not legalize it; (3) the ordinance remained void since the City never reenacted it following the enabling act; and (4) the voluntary payment doctrine did not apply to bar their claims.

The First District began by affirming dismissal for lack of standing with respect to two plaintiffs. One had received citations in other jurisdictions, and alleged that she reasonably feared receiving more in Chicago. The other had not received a citation, but alleged that she had paid half the fine assessed against her husband.

Plaintiffs’ challenge to the ordinance itself was based on the proposition that the ordinance exceeded the home rule authority of the City of Chicago. Prior to 1970, the balance of power in Illinois was weighted heavily towards the state and away from local governments. The constitution adopted that year significantly changed that relationship, shifting considerable powers to so-called “home rule units.” Now, such local governments may do anything that the legislature has not expressly barred.

Local governments are permitted to adopt ordinances relating to traffic issues generally, so long as nothing in the ordinances is inconsistent with the state Vehicle Code. One of the few exceptions to this general idea is that home rule authorities may not enact anything governing “the movement of vehicles.” The Code provides that automated devices “for the purpose of recording [a vehicle’s] speed” are the exclusive province of the State. 625 ILCS 5/11-208.6(c). On the other hand, Section 11-208.2 of the Code permits local authorities to adopt ordinances “regulating traffic by means of police officers or traffic control signals.” (625 ILCS 5/11-208.) Because red light ordinances have been previously construed as not relating to “the movement of vehicles,” the court held that adoption of the ordinance was within the City’s home rule authority, and the enabling act was therefore unnecessary.

The court then turned to the plaintiffs’ claim that the 2006 enabling act was unconstitutional special legislation. The court pointed out that a legislative act applicable only to particular parts of the state could survive a special legislation challenge only where it was based upon a rational distinction between the affected areas and the rest of the state. Here, although the statute doesn’t specifically explain why only eight counties were authorized to enact red light ordinances, the legislative history of the 2006 act does: because red light cameras cost between ninety and one hundred thousand dollars apiece, the authority was granted only to the most populous counties with the most traffic. Given that rational basis, the statute was not unconstitutional special legislation.

Finally, the court turned to the voluntary payment doctrine. The doctrine has deep roots in the common law: anyone who voluntarily pays a debt claimed by another as a matter of right, with knowledge of the facts which allegedly negate that claim of right, cannot later challenge the creditor’s claim to payment. The doctrine does not ordinarily apply when payment is made under duress. After reviewing the law on duress in detail, the court concluded that because accused violators were subject to significant penalties for non-payment, including collection proceedings with possible liability for attorneys’ fees and immobilization of their vehicles, the plaintiffs had paid under duress and the voluntary payment doctrine did not bar their claims. However, because the plaintiffs’ complaints failed to state a claim on the merits, the Appellate Court affirmed the judgments.

We expect Keating to be decided in the next six to eight months.