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It Could Happen to You

Her license plate was stolen. She reported it. And then things got really bad.

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Laura Doherty had just been ordered to pay $570 in parking tickets and fines--on a license plate some jerk stole off her car more than a year ago. The worst part was, the city knew this, and yet was still demanding that she foot the bill.

"Is there no justice?" a frustrated Doherty wrote to the Reader last month. "I cannot understand why a law abiding citizen has to pay the city for nonmoving traffic violations they did not commit. I AM IN PARKING TICKET HELL."

Doherty's troubles started on August 6, 2001, when she noticed the plate missing from the back of her 1990 Honda Accord. She went to the 20th District police station on Foster Avenue and filed a report. A few days later she went down to the secretary of state's motorist facility at the Thompson Center and filled out an application for new plates, checking a box to indicate the old ones had been stolen.

Doherty bolted the new plates onto her car and went on with her life. She was preoccupied with moving to a new apartment in Uptown. But early that November, her mailbox started filling up with violation notices from the Chicago Department of Revenue. On September 13, a vehicle bearing her old plate had been ticketed for parking in a street-sweeping zone; on September 20, for parking in a rush-hour zone. Most of the offenses occurred near Lawndale and Diversey in Avondale, a neighborhood Doherty had never visited. Doherty wrote "STOLEN PLATE" on the notices and mailed them back, along with letters explaining the situation and copies of the police report.

The city excused her from a couple tickets, but more notices arrived.

They "kept coming and coming," says Doherty. "There's so many of them that came I couldn't even keep up." There was even a $50 hit for not displaying front and rear plates.

Early last November Doherty got a letter from the secretary of state's office in Springfield: her new plate had been suspended because a man she'd never met, seen, or heard of had been caught driving without insurance. It must be the jerk who stole my old plate, she thought.

Flabbergasted and irate, Doherty called the secretary of state's office. "I reported this stolen back in August," she said.

"You need to call the secretary of state's police," the clerk responded.

She called the secretary of state's police. Fax us the police report, they told her.

She did, nearly two weeks later--though she shouldn't have had to at all. Local police are supposed to notify the state whenever they take a stolen plate report, according to both the Chicago Police Department and Randy Nehrt, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Jesse White. But apparently Doherty's report was never entered into the state's Law Enforcement Agency Data System, a shared on-line database that includes stolen plate information.

By the time the old plate was officially revoked, on November 26, the jerk had run up five more parking tickets.

Coming up on last Christmas, Doherty was facing more than $1,000 in fines--almost as much as her biweekly paycheck. "I came to the realization that I should go to the Department of Revenue and speak to someone in person," she says.

On December 19, Doherty requested a hearing on all the outstanding tickets she knew about. Late the next month she presented her case at the revenue department's payment center on Addison. Administrative law officer Patrick D. Riley bawled her out for not bringing a copy of the police report, she says. He dismissed two tickets anyway, on the grounds that "your plate or vehicle was stolen on the date of the violation."

Though she had given the secretary of state's office her new address, the city was still sending notices to her old apartment. After she'd requested the hearing, more belated notices had straggled in. She'd assumed she could just save them up and deal with everything at once. Riley said she couldn't.

His reasoning: it was too late. After a ticket goes unpaid and uncontested for six weeks, it reaches "final determination" status and an administrative law officer can't dismiss it.

"In their eyes, it was a time problem," Doherty says. "With me, it didn't matter if I did it five years later, because my plate was stolen."

Four days later Doherty returned to the Addison office to ask for another hearing. She was granted one on the spot. Officer Marcia K. Johnson dismissed three more tickets, but that still left six on Doherty's tab--more than enough to qualify her for a booting under the city's old rules. (At the time it took five final determinations. Now it takes only three.)

"I pleaded with [Johnson]. I said, 'Can't you take off some more?' She said, 'No, sorry.'" (Doherty didn't know it at the time, but drivers who feel they've been jagged at one of these hearings can appeal in Cook County Circuit Court.)

Now Doherty owed $570. She decided not to pay. They weren't her tickets, so why should she? In May the revenuers wrote to tell Doherty she was on the boot list. She ignored the letter, but all through spring and summer, every time she approached her car, she'd peer around the bumper with trepidation, looking for the clunky yellow boot. Doherty's a musician and works at the Old Town School of Folk Music, so she couldn't help thinking of "Lincoln Park Pirates," Steve Goodman's ode to our revenue department: "Way, hey, tow them away / The Lincoln Park Pirates are we / From Wilmette to Gary, there's nothin' so hairy / And we always collect our fee!"

The pirates collected their fee. Last month Doherty got a notice that said if she didn't pay up the city could report her to the credit bureaus, file a lien against any property she might have, or garnish her wages.

Doherty figured she was beaten and sat down to write the check. She wasn't even eligible for this fall's parking ticket amnesty, which allowed motorists to pay late tickets without additional fees: it only applied to tickets written before 2000. On the day she finally paid up, she says, she felt liberated.

But she was still angry. "I thought of all the things I could buy with that $570," she says. "A guitar, a plane ticket to Europe, an amplifier." She was angrier at the city than at the jerk who'd gotten her into the mess to begin with. "The guy who stole my plate is just some lowlife," she says. "It's the city that's not listening to my story and making me pay for something I didn't do."

But Doherty may get justice yet--from revenue department deputy director Matt Darst. Darst handles about 150 appeals a year from drivers with parking ticket headaches. When I spoke to him about Doherty's trip through "parking ticket hell," he suggested she fax her police report to his office.

"In this case, you've got someone who got a bunch of tickets," he said. "She probably couldn't keep up with the tickets, so we're not going to be heavy-handed. If I get the police report, that gives me enough information for a motion to vacate. We could move [her money] into escrow until we approached the Department of Administrative Hearings. If they rule in her favor, we'll provide a refund."

Doherty faxed the police report, and this week Darst filed a motion to vacate, asking the Department of Administrative Hearings to wipe out her fines.

He thinks her chances are good. "Cases where something could go 50-50 are not candidates for this," he says. He files motions to vacate only when "the determination or holding in a case really just flies in the face of what we think is justified."

"If I can get a refund, great," Doherty says. "I'm not holding my breath, though."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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