Illinois is known as the Land of Lincoln, but the title of this e-newsletter is also a motto the state has used to promote tourism. Since Illinois also collects hundreds of millions of dollars annually from motorists for everything from tolls to speeding and red-light camera tickets, it wouldn’t surprise us to learn that many government administrators automatically hear ka-ching whenever the magnificent mile slogan is uttered.
Take the following story as a case in point. A Wisconsin-based friend of the NMA shared his plight with us to see if we had any suggestions. His is a tale of a system that is designed to extract as much money from the citizenry as possible and of hard lessons learned:
In 2011 I got a speeding in a construction zone ticket in Illinois (of course). The thing about it was that there was no construction going on and it was mid-day during the week, so the road was packed. If I was going any slower then I was, I would have literally been run off the road. There were infinity cars in front of me and behind me all very close so I literally going with the flow. Obviously Illinois seems to do these traps on purpose because when I showed up for court everyone in the courtroom was there for the same ticket given in the exact location as I was. They actually had people stand up in rows to all plead at once. I assume they had the entire day scheduled that way as I was just one time slot with hundreds of people for that same time slot.
But I digress. I pleaded guilty as literally everyone did, and was more or less encouraged to, and went on my way. I thought I had paid before leaving so I didn’t have to go back there again. Four years went by of me never thinking about it again with no calls or letters in the mail, etc. Suddenly three weeks ago I saw a ding on my credit for the ticket I got in 2011! So I called to take care of it right away (I called them mind you, still no contact from them to me). I was ready to pay and give them my credit card info over the phone, but right before he was about to run it he verified the total with me. To my surprise it was almost double the original ticket! They let massive interest build on the ticket without me knowing it was even still owed for four years.
I told them there was no way I was going to pay that as it was completely unfair for me to have to fund their bankrupt state by means of shady tactics. I am sure you saw John Oliver recently do a huge piece on municipal fines and how he can’t believe it is legal to do things exactly like this. At the end of the call the guy said he would see what he could do and give me a call back. Of course he never did. So three weeks later I called them back. This time they claimed they couldn’t find my information and just referred me to the circuit court office. They informed me that the only thing I could do is file a motion to have the collection fees dropped which would require me sending a certified letter and then going to court (back in Illinois).
I just wanted to see what your opinion on the matter was. Should I move forward with all that? Is it better to just suck it up and pay nearly $800 on an original $500 ticket that was a scam to begin with?
Where do we start? A double-the-penalty construction zone ticket when workers aren’t even present is something we have lobbied against for years. The cattle-call processing of speeding ticket guilty pleas in traffic court is not the court’s fault; that is on the drivers for caving so easily and not challenging the system. (A system, we might add, that in most places begins negotiating at the slightest whiff of resistance by the defendant rather than expend the resources to try the matter in court.)
Our suggestions to our beleaguered colleague caught in the clutches of the Illinois ticket machine, knowing that his original plea of guilty severely limits his options:
- Contact the credit agencies and contest the ding on your record. It would help if you have proof that you paid the original ticket or have tried to work things out with the court or the collection agency.
- Negotiate with the collection agency. Despite any hardball positions they might take, everything is negotiable. They’d rather get something rather than nothing. Ask them for a breakdown of the interest and collection costs that increased the ticket from $500 to $800 and offer to settle for a reduced amount, perhaps the base ticket cost plus reasonable interest. The state charges something like nine percent interest in cases like this which is well above current rates. Offer to pay them less, perhaps four percent interest, and have them forgo the collection costs—let them tell you what they are first—because it is clear that since you’ve not been contacted in the four years since the traffic penalty was established, they have not expended much (if any) effort to find and notify you.
- Make sure any agreement is in writing and shows that you have cleared the matter by paying the original ticket and agreed-upon penalty.
- Even if you decide to pay the full $800, make sure you have in writing that the debt has been paid so that you can go about clearing your credit record.
Ultimately the responsibility for an unpaid ticket and its consequences is on the motorist. The government is perfectly happy to let the penalty accrue interest over time or to engage a collection agency to extract an additional pound of flesh.
To quote the recently departed philosopher extraordinaire Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”