Red-light racket coming apart

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

By the time the ticket collection noise reaches the warning stage — the pay up or the state of Illinois will deduct your red-light ticket fee from your tax refund — I always enjoy sending a note back telling the municipalities of Hillside, North Riverside, Berwyn, and River Forest, where over the years I have collected a small handful of such tickets, to go at it, that they will never see a dime directly from me.

"You are running a racket that has nothing to do with safe driving and is all about stealing money from citizens." 

That's the note I send. I never get an answer. But that's OK. The satisfaction is in stating clearly that cash-strapped towns and villages have turned to a scheme to immorally extract money from ordinary people. Yep, these towns have exploding police and fire pensions to pay and this is at the top of the list on how they are making those ballooning payouts. 

I sympathize with the financial squeeze these burgs are in. We cover their budget processes. The pain is real. Property taxes are maxed. Sales taxes are softening. Non-home rule towns are limited in what else they can pile fees onto. 

So when slicksters from the politically juiced red-light camera companies showed up a few years ago, they promised a whole new stream of revenue with no upfront costs and which, in the main, prey on drivers passing through from other places, or coming to shop in their town — in other words not your own voting residents — the towns couldn't sign on fast enough. 

They gave balderdash rationalizations about how this would make driving safer. All the numbers captured to date reflect that red-light cameras don't find many people blowing through red lights. The vast majority of drivers are ticketed for not coming to a complete stop before turning right on red. Easy pickings, but not much of a traffic hazard.

So on Monday it gave me great pleasure to read that Susana Mendoza, the Illinois comptroller, is taking the state of Illinois out of the business of collecting red-light ticket fees. 

"The comptroller's office isn't going to be in the business" of helping "a program that's broken and corrupt," Mendoza told the Sun-Times in a recent interview. 

Broken and corrupt. That sums it up. 

How important has the state's role been in collecting unpaid red-light tickets via withheld tax refunds? Here are numbers from North Riverside, which has long shared the bounty with Berwyn from red-light cameras at the intersection of Harlem and Cermak: 

As direct payments to municipalities from ticketed drivers have fallen over the past three years — fewer tickets, fed up or broke drivers — the state of Illinois has stepped in to fill North Riverside's coffers. 

In 2017, the comptroller's office collected $358,544 for North Riverside. In 2019 the collection assistance from the state leapt to $1,328,500. That dwarfed the roughly $980,000 North Riverside collected directly. 

Three years ago, Wednesday Journal and our sister papers in Forest Park and North Riverside, did an expansive series on the rich take that River Forest, Forest Park, North Riverside and Berwyn were making on red-light cameras stretched out along Harlem Avenue. 

The numbers were eye-popping. The political intrigue behind the handful of red-light camera operators and local politicians was obvious. 

Over the past year, the Sun-Times and the Tribune have powerfully latched on to that story. Federal prosecutors have been raiding the offices of local pols and former pols as they work to prove the connections between the camera companies and municipalities. Last week came reporting of scads of cash found in the home office safes of officials in McCook and Oakbrook Terrace.

Careers are rightly being ruined. Jail looms. Good.

And good for the state of Illinois for choosing not to be an accomplice in fleecing drivers. 

Contact:
Email: dhaley@wjinc.com Twitter: @OPEditor

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Reader Comments

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Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 15th, 2020 3:25 PM

@ Dean Rogers: Mean Dean, I wish to restructure your last two sentences. Your sentence should read " Cameras are guilty until proven unconstitutional."

Dean Rogers from Oak Park  

Posted: January 15th, 2020 2:11 PM

Mark Graham So a company representative,then a River Forest police officer determine my guilt.Whereas if a police officer actually witnessed me running a red light,I would be issued a citation and have an opportunity to defend myself in front of a judge. Big difference.Police officers are not supposed to be judges determining guilt or innocence. Cameras are guilty until proven innocent.Unconstitutional.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 15th, 2020 10:45 AM

Tommy "Real" McCoy: There is a Portland Oregon Rosebud hockey jersey available. The jersey is white with mint green leaves, vines, and pink/red rosebuds. My daughter in Oregon is trying to track down a used jersey for me so I can letter the jersey with Patrick Kanes number and name and to go the United Center to be scorned.History lives forever.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 15th, 2020 10:39 AM

@ Tommy "Real" McCoy: A traffic accident citation is a very lucrative offense because the citation is a must appear citation ie: the investigating officer is guaranteed court time. giving the complainant a chance, repeat chance to come to court. Things might have changed. DUI is also a very lucrative offense for the arresting officer because the original offense is booked on a regular misdemeanor court call and usually transferred by request of the defendants attorney to the jury trial court call which is almost empty, meaning the officer walks in, case heard, walks out ASAP from jury court, with court time in hand.Things might have changed.So you met Robert Marvin. Did he have his famous long golden hair and(or bald spot) and did his dentures slip? Robert Marvin told me that the only ice he wants to see now is in the bottom of his cocktail glass, and that his wife made him a millionaire, although before the divorce hearing he had two million dollars.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: January 14th, 2020 6:44 PM

Brian Slowiak I do not think there are many ticket's issued for traffic accident's any more compared how it use. The way to change the red light camera company is not to buy their service's. In other word's, just idle until the light turn's green. No money mean's the camera equipment will be moved. Thank you for explaining the name of Blackhawks. It does not seem like the Rosebuds would have been the best name in Chicago. I do not know much about sports so I took the time to check it out. I know you really enjoy your Blackhawks. I met Bobby Hull, and had a nice little conversation with him and then asked him if he would sign a puck for some one I was with which he did. I knew the name although did not know how well known he is associated with hockey

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 14th, 2020 4:28 PM

@ Tommy "Real" McCoy: Once again Tommy mostly true. Police officers do issue citations for traffic offenses at accident scenes when they did not witness anything. There are also in station traffic citations for accidents where officers have not witnessed anything. The analogy is why doesn't a citizen have access to traffic school with a red light camera magistrate but has a chance of going to traffic school in front of a traffic court judge? After all red light cameras are all about safety, right. Nothing speaks safety more than training. The issue is not off the table because we should have input as to a bigger table.Pull up a chair. By the way Tommy, it is The Chicago Blackhawks, not Black Hawks. The name was changed to Blackhawks because original title and charter paperwork showed the teams name to be Blackhawks, not Black Hawks. The Blackhawks were moved from Portland, Oregon by Col. McLaughlin, what was the team mane in Portland? That team name was great for a laugh.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: January 14th, 2020 1:36 PM

Brian Slowiak I do not think you are able to go to the town Police department you received a red light camera ticket and ask for a Police officer to write out a ticket since the Police officer did not witness the offense, so that is off the table. You can stand and demand although you will be asked to leave or directed to where to call the red light camera company. You are caught in a loop which all of the loop holes have been closed. If people do not turn on red at a red light camera then the town will not profit and the same for the company. The turn on red light has only been around Illinois for the last few decade's so before that, you had to wait at the red light. Of course this is about making money. Oak Park parking had parking free after 6 p.m. in the North Boulevard lot where you could park for free and go to one of the restaurants on Marion street. Later it was discovered this was a money opportunity not to be missed and the answer that I received is the business owner's wanted the parking meter's to be extended to 8 p.m.. I think the business owners if they really thought that way were creating less business since dining is generally after 6 p.m. which seems it was just another way for the Village to increase parking revenue which make's it less attractive to park and pay to go to a restaurant on Marion street

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: January 14th, 2020 10:17 AM

William Dwyer Jr. I do not disagree with what you are writing and I understand if you are in the right group to get some thing done, then it get's done. Insurance companies are a very good example of why laws are changed and why vehicle's have device's on them that can monitor the driver's habit's and how the cost of some influence the cost to be spread out to everyone

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 14th, 2020 8:36 AM

@ Tommy "Real" McCoy: Hey Tommy, how about this for a for instance. Say someone gets a parking citation for a red light violation. They go to the local police station and demand they be given a moving citation. They then explain to he local P.I.G (Pride, Integrity,Guts) that they demand to be issued a moving violation in order to go before a judge in hopes of getting driving school and no fine, thereby adding into in a positive way to the safety aspect. Amazing, you cant get driving school in lieu of a fine from a parking citation magistrate settling an offense on a parking citation. By the way, that Cook County Sheriff using that seized auto to drive through toll booths, the only reason we know of the offense is that the owner of the seized auto was served with all the fines and had to go to court to explain to the judge he was not in possession of the auto. If the judge cut the owner free from the fines, why cant the same thought process be used by an owner on a red light camera offense if the owner doesn't know who was driving his car. As of yet it is unknown if the Cook County Sheriff paid the fines. If the fines were not paid, what happen to the offenses and who did what and when to the offenses?

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: January 14th, 2020 7:06 AM

Well, Tommy, all those people who "probably" know the WJ published reporting on this? I'm not talking to them, I'm talking to those who didn't know. People should also know that this whole idea of red light camera "enforcement" was driven by folks from Melrose Park and Bellwood, generally, not exactly your fair minded good government types. Look up Roy McCampbell, if you don't mind holding your nose while you read. Another connected type from Melrose Park- I won't mention his name because my memory is a little fuzzy- but I recall him pushing hard to get legislation passed in Springfield, then cashing in through business connections. This was always about getting rich for a connected few, and never about public safety.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 14th, 2020 12:38 AM

@ Real McCoy: Yes, however someone made that consideration, and that doesn't make the consideration correct. There is also a provision that after a certain amount of offenses for a red light camera offense your drivers license can be suspended. Again if you own a car and a person goes through 50 red light cameras, the owners drivers license is suspended not the drivers. Mayor Rahm Emanuel had a policy that he would pay for all the red light camera offenses his security detail piled up . However none of the police officers in his security detail ever came close to having their drivers license suspended I find it intriguing that all the red light camera tickets photographing police cars going thru a red light somehow get dismissed and all those officers proved that going through the red light was justified..If you sign a contract with a rental company, you abide by that contract. Don't want to abide by the contract, don't rent the car. There was a Cook County Sheriff working under cover with a auto and plates that were seized during a drug raid, and the officer breezed thru many a toll way booth with seized car and license plates booth without paying the toll. Or, were family members driving the under cover car. We will never know. A confession to anarchy. I did some body and fender on my dear departed pick up truck and took off the rear bumper and license plate, covered the plate and placed the bumper in the bed of my truck. I then drove my unplated truck numerous times thru a red light camera. A pure waste of film and clerical work. Theres an old Motown song, with the chorus "no where to run. baby, no where to hide" . Proved that wrong, at least for now.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: January 13th, 2020 9:30 PM

Brian Slowiak you know the violation is considered more of a parking ticket and if the car was owned by a car rental company, the car rental company would forward the violation to the renter. If you have rented a car, it is included in the agreement the renter sign's agreeing to pay parking ticket's

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 13th, 2020 9:18 PM

How do we know if the owner of the car is the driver of the time at the photo? The owner is issued a citation for a violation they may not be guilty of or even in the car photographed. The driver is never identified The owner is identified by a license plate check. The owner of the auto in the photo is never given the chance to speak on this issue. Plus, the cost of defending yourself as someone who did not drive the car is more than the cost of the photo citation.

Tom MacMillan from OAK PARK  

Posted: January 13th, 2020 5:18 PM

It was never about safety. That was a LIE. After they lie to you, why keep listening to the follow up blather.

Michael Nevins  

Posted: January 13th, 2020 4:41 PM

I'll keep this simple: this is nothing but a money grab by RF (and other communities) - primarily from non-RF residents. It's sort of like a fine for jaywalking. Yes, it's illegal, but the punishment doesn't even come close to the actual crime. Want proof? Reread the initial comment by Monica Sheehan. Yes, I'm sometimes frustrated when people REFUSE to even consider turning right at an intersection with a camera, but $100 is a lot of money for many people and I patiently wait/understand. But "taking from the poor and giving to the rich" is not a concern for some politicians? Hmm, is this an anti-equity program by RF? I believe it is.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: January 13th, 2020 3:29 PM

Dale Jones It would be nice if it worked the way you think it does. I have had a few and yes, I was at fault and paid each one. I did not even realize that I rolled through without stopping although there it was on the video. The one's that are troublesome are the one's that you are not able to tell when you have the front of your vehicle in the very exact stop the camera is set for. So you think you did every thing correct, and even checked for pedestrian's a block a way and make the right turn. Once again, you get a ticket. I will not turn on the camera light. I have noticed people in front of me who do not turn. I have had people behind me who have not honked to make the turn. I think people are realizing although it is a turn on right light, that they just will not do it if there is a camera set up

Mark Graham from Oak Park  

Posted: January 13th, 2020 3:17 PM

The law is clear, come to a complete stop, then turn on red. if permitted at the intersection and there is no oncoming traffic and there are no pedestrians in the area. However if you stop one foot past the white line that is put there to detect violations, your actions will be subject to red light violation review, even if you stop for any number of fractional or full seconds. Then that review will consist of first some person at the company that put in the camera, then if verified that will be passed on to River Forest, where it will be reviewed by a police officer, who will make the final decision. It would be useful to see how many "rolling" right turn violations are flagged in each step, and the breakdown of where the cars found to be in violation are registered. I read earlier about 90% of red light camera tickets around here are for "rolling" right turn on red.

Dale Jones from River Forest  

Posted: January 13th, 2020 2:28 PM

The law reads that you must come to a complete stop before making a right turn on red. If you slowed down, but didn't come to a complete stop you are in violation. No-one is above the law.

Dean Rogers from Oak Park  

Posted: January 13th, 2020 1:59 PM

In many parts of the country(states),courts have ruled these cameras,as well as speed snipers,illegal,since,unlike actual citations from an officer where one appears in court to plead their case and have a judge issue a verdict,these cameras presume guilt and you must appeal to prove your innocence.Whether Illinois' courts would follow suit is problematic.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: January 13th, 2020 11:47 AM

Mark Graham I agree with your explanation and have explained it although I will not turn on a Red Light, where it is permitted, if there is a camera. It is a rigged game. You are taking a chance on some thing that should be honest which it is not, regardless how well you follow the rule's of the road. There is also speed camera's that are hidden in Chicago. It is like a sniper. It is well hidden and gives no notice

Mark Graham from Oak Park  

Posted: January 13th, 2020 10:40 AM

If you do not come to a complete multi second stop behind the white line at these red light camera intersections you risk getting a "ticket". If you have not stopped behind the white line first just sit until the light turns green, enduring any honking behind you. I avoid those turns and detour through the River Forest side streets instead, taking care to negotiate all the two stop sign, four stop sign, and no stop sign intersections legally.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: January 13th, 2020 10:31 AM

William Dwyer Jr. Probably many people recall that the Wednesday Journal did the stories. Now that the stories have been done the camera's are still collecting money. When you received enough parking ticket's the Department of Motor Vehicle's will suspend a person's driver's license on behalf of the town's. Maybe the Red light companies should be working with the Department of Motor Vehicle's to collect the money for those who do not pay

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: January 12th, 2020 8:38 PM

It should be noted that Wednesday Journal published an excellent, comprehensive multi-part series on this topic three years ago nearly to the day; https://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/1-10-2017/Red_light-cameras-by-the-numbers-/. .and https://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/1-10-2017/A-street-paved-with-gold/ . . Excellent reporting and writing by WJ senior editor Bob Uphues and former FPR editor Brett McNeil.. So WJ is no Johnny come lately to this issue.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: January 12th, 2020 3:17 PM

Gee Dan your "You are running a racket that has nothing to do with (insert OP taxing body's function) and is all about stealing money from citizens" could have been an editorial to any one of our gluttonous and greedy taxing bodies. But nooooo. You'd rather pen your usual obsequious odes why stealing money from the electorate - under the guise of taxation because "it's for the children" or other inanities - is perfectly fine.

Monica Sheehan  

Posted: January 12th, 2020 12:00 PM

Dan, It will be interesting to see whether the comptroller's action has any impact on River Forest's nearly $1 million annual take of revenues generated by its two Red Light Running (RLR) cameras. Perhaps the Wednesday Journal could do a follow-up story on these two RLR cameras and their alleged effectiveness. The RLR camera at North and Harlem Avenues has not yielded a significant decline in the number of accidents: 17.5 crashes annually prior to installation in 2013 compared to 16.25 crashes annually post installation, based on the three-year follow-up report posted on the village's website. Based on a FOIA submitted in 2018, River Forest trustees relied heavily on single 24-hour data collection reports, gathered by its soon-to-be RLR camera operator, SafeSpeed, in making their decisions to implement the two controversial RLR cameras at North and Harlem Avenues and Harlem Avenue and Lake Street, respectively. The majority of violations in the North and Harlem Avenues' day-long study were right-turn violations: 251 of the total 287, a similar finding was reported in the Harlem/Lake study. Yet, the incidence of right-turn accidents at the North/Harlem intersection during the years 2009-2016, before and after camera installation, was relatively few, one or two most years. Note, the three-year follow-up report on the RLR camera at Harlem Avenue and Lake Street is not posted on the village's website.

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