Chicago drivers almost never appeal their $100 red light camera fines, but an investigation into suspicious ticket spikes around the city suggests that thousands of people may have missed their chance to win a fight with City Hall.
The 21-day window for appeals has long since passed for citations doled out during the sudden surges at dozens of intersections. But drivers who did appeal those fines from some of the most dramatic spikes were far more likely to win than anyone else citywide, the Tribune found during a 10-month examination of more than 4 million tickets issued since 2007.
The investigation revealed clear evidence that wild swings in ticketing — which the city said it never knew about and cannot explain — were caused by faulty equipment, human tinkering or both. Four national red light camera experts say the findings mean the city may be obliged to correct its mistakes — even if it means refunding fines.
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"It sounds like there are tickets that should have never been issued, or that recipients maybe should have appealed," said Joseph Hummer, professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University in Detroit.
"And if they would have appealed, they may have been successful with those as well," Hummer said. "It certainly suggests that."
But city transportation officials who oversee the program say the tiny sliver of tickets overturned on appeal — less than one-half of 1 percent — is evidence of an accurate, fair and efficient camera program.
"The reason the appeal rates are so minuscule is because people who think they stopped take a look at the evidence and conclude they were in violation of the law," said David Zavattero, a deputy director for the Chicago Department of Transportation.
"We provide them with all the evidence," he said. "It's all right there for them to see. They can look at the picture, and they can look at the video. In my view, that is why there are not very many appeals, because in the end there isn't anything to appeal."
Many of the more than 100 drivers caught in ticket spikes who were contacted by the Tribune said they paid without checking the video the city posts online.
"I thought just for a second about appealing, but then I thought, 'How can you fight the city of Chicago?'" said Andrew Ferrier, 42, a Bible teacher from Lindenhurst who was among 410 drivers ticketed during a particularly severe spike on the North Side in the summer of 2012.
"It just seemed like a waste of time and effort and money, so I just went ahead and thought, 'Well, pay the ticket,'" he said.
Ferrier is among the vast majority of drivers who never appeal their red light camera tickets. Of more than 4 million tickets issued since 2007, fewer than 190,000 were appealed, and fewer than 18,000 tickets were thrown out by the cadre of lawyers hired by the city as hearing officers.
As ticket revenue from Chicago's red light camera program — the largest in the country — edges close to half a billion dollars, experts suggest the low appeal rate stems more from apathy, and the "you-can't-fight-City-Hall" attitude.
"It can make you angry, because I can look at this and say I could get caught in a situation like that and you're dealing with a bureaucracy and how do you approach it and what is your time worth?" said Joseph Schofer, an associate dean at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.
"Is it worth your time to go down and fight something like this as opposed to sucking it up and paying the ticket?" he said. "I think for a lot of people it's just easier to say I'm angry, I didn't make the mistake, but I am going to pay for it because that's the way to get out of it and get on with my life."
But a Tribune review of appeals since 2010 shows that successful appeals rocketed at some of the intersections with the most severe ticket spikes. At Halsted and 119th streets, for instance, 45 percent of the appealed tickets during the spike were tossed out as invalid.
That's why experts, and some of the drivers, believe the city should reopen its appeals process or consider refunds.
"I think that would be the fair thing to do, for sure," Ferrier said.
One reason experts say many don't appeal is the narrow window drivers are given to make the choice. While City Hall has three months from the alleged infraction to issue a citation, drivers have a window of only three weeks to contest it.
In addition, the list of legal excuses is narrow as well.
Essentially the law excuses a violation only in cases in which:
— Your plate or car was stolen at the time of the ticket.
— You can prove someone else owned the car at the time.
— The photograph and video evidence show there was no infraction.
— Your car was authorized to violate the signal.
A Tribune examination of hearing officer notes in more than 12,000 successful appeals since 2010 found more than 8,000 in which the officials specified the reason for tossing the tickets.
In more than 1,400 cases the hearing officer ruled that no violations took place: The evidence showed the vehicle either stopped or had a yellow or green light when it entered the intersection.
More than a thousand tickets were thrown out for bureaucratic errors ranging from blurry pictures to missing records to illegible signatures. In about 80 cases there were malfunctions with the traffic lights themselves, about half involving yellow light times that were too short.
More than 2,300 tickets were tossed because they went to people who didn't own the car when the infraction took place. An additional 1,685 were tossed because the tickets went to people whose cars or license plates had been stolen.
In more than 1,100 cases, tickets were dismissed because the vehicles were in funeral processions.
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