One particular car has set the Chicago, Illinois record for most parking violations and fines. The city claims Jennifer Fitzgerald owes $105,761.80 for the debt Chicago officials say the 31 year old, single mother of one owes for parking violations issued to a 1999 Chevy Monte Carlo registered in her name.
Fitzgerald claims she did not own, drive or park the car where Chicago's Department of Finance (DOF) says it racked up 678 bright orange parking tickets over a period of nearly three years. Based on DOF records, the car in question seems to have set a record in Chicago for having received the highest number of parking tickets as well as accruing the largest fine amounts ever, beating Chicago's number two ranked parking ticket scofflaw by $65,000 and over 400 violations.
Fitzgerald is fighting back against the city, her ex-boyfriend and United Airlines with a lawsuit filed November 2 in Cook County Circuit Court. According to the complaint, the somewhat confusing story starts when her former boyfriend Brandon Preveau, bought a 1999 Chevy Monte Carlo from Fitzgerald's uncle for $600 in 2008. Despite paying all the fees associated with owning a vehicle (registration, title and insurance) he put the vehicle's registration in Fitzgerald's name -- something the West Side Chicago resident claims was done without her knowledge.
Despite having had a baby together, the couple broke up at the start of 2009. Preveau took the car with him after their split. He used the Monte Carlo to drive to work at O'Hare Airport where he was employed by United Airlines. Preveau would leave the vehicle in O'Hare parking lot E, a secured outdoor lot surrounded by high chain link fencing, that is open to the flying public but also utilized by airport employees. The parking lot is owned by the city of Chicago and operated by Standard Parking Corporation, but according to the complaint, United Airlines leases spaces in the lot for use by airline employees.
Unbeknownst to Fitzgerald, Preveau abandoned the vehicle. According to the complaints, "On or before November 17, 2009, Brandon drove the automobile into the parking lot and never drove it out again." While the car Preveau drove began receiving parking tickets at the O'Hare lot as early as May 23, 2009, the key date for this story is November 17, 2009. On that day the vehicle was issued seven different parking tickets including being in a hazardous and dilapidated condition, no city sticker, broken headlights, missing or cracked windows, expired plates, being an abandoned vehicle and most importantly a violation for parking a vehicle for more than 30 days in a city-owned lot. Beyond the $50 fine that comes with that violation, the law also states: "Any vehicle parked in violation of this section shall be subjected to an immediate tow and removal to city vehicle pound or authorized garage."
Department of Aviation spokesman Karen Pride says O'Hare parking policies essentially echo the law. Thirty days is the normal maximum a vehicle is allowed to stay parked in any of O'Hare parking lots, though exceptions can be made for a longer stay if arrangements are made between the driver and Standard Parking.
"There are signs posted at the entrance to all revenue lots at O'Hare relating the parking policy," says Pride. "If an individual plans to leave a vehicle in a revenue lot for longer than 30 days, he must notify Standard Parking, the lot operators at the airport. If a vehicle is in a lot for more than 30 days and Standard Parking was not notified, then the company will try to contact the owner to find out his plans to get the vehicle... If Standard cannot contact the owner, then the vehicle is towed to Lot F, where it might remain for 30 to 90 days, in case the owner comes back for it. After that period, the vehicle is towed to the city impound lot as abandoned."
Despite the airport policies that should have seen the car yanked from the lot, airport police continued to ticket the vehicle over and over for a wide range of violations until April 30, 2012. In the nearly two-and-a-half years after the car had been officially designated as an abandoned vehicle by the city, it had been ticketed another 677 times. Fitzgerald's lawsuit argues the vast majority of the tickets would never have been issued if the city had just followed its protocols when the vehicle was first identified as being in violation of the law.
Put On Notice
Fitzgerald finally began getting a whiff there was a serious problem in December 2009 when the first batch of what would eventually total 391 notices from the Department of Revenue began appearing in her mailbox. Fitzgerald, according to the complaint, began trying to rectify the situation in several ways. First, she and her family pleaded with Preveau to move the car, but to no avail. She wanted to move the vehicle herself but was stymied because she did not have the keys nor could she access the car because it was parked in a secure lot. She enlisted the Chicago Police Department to aid her, but the complaint says the investigating officer failed to obtain access to the lot.
Fitzgerald asked the Illinois Secretary of State to revoke the vehicle's license plates, which finally occurred September 29, 2010. Despite the revocation, the city continued to issue the parking violations to the car for another year and a half. Toward the end of 2011, the city's collection agency, Arnold Scott Harris, had obtained several judgments against Fitzgerald totaling nearly $21,000 -- a mere fraction of the total the city claims she now owes. Appearing before an administrative law judge to defend herself and hopefully explain the confounding situation, Fitzgerald says she was advised by the judge to sign over title to the vehicle to Preveau in order to shift liability to him, which she promptly did and delivered it to her ex-boyfriend.
Finally, Some Help
After dealing with this parking ticket nightmare by her lonesome for two years, Fitzgerald finally secured help this past April in the form of pro bono legal counsel from attorney Robin Omahana. When contacted, Omahana declined to comment on the pending matter or make his client available to discuss the situation. Instead, he directed us to his filed complaint. Omahana wrote a letter to Arnold Scott Harris to explain the situation and ask for some sort of relief. In July the collection attorneys came back and said Fitzgerald's attempt to transfer title to Preveau was inadequate and the city would show no mercy, insisting she was indeed liable for the six-figure parking ticket fine. At that point, Omahana began moving forward to prepare the lawsuit. Roderick Drew, spokesman for the city's Law Department, declined to comment.
"The city hasn't yet had a chance to review the lawsuit, so we can't comment at this time," said Drew.
The City Digs In
The Expired Meter contacted the Chicago Police Department (CPD), Standard Parking (which has the contract to manage O'Hare's parking lots) and further pressed the city's Aviation Department for more insight into how something like this could happen. Each was silent on the matter. CPD spokesman Melissa Stratton, after multiple requests by phone and email, had not answered any of The Expired Meter's questions regarding CPD's policies on parking enforcement and towing abandoned vehicles. Standard Parking said its contract with the city forbade the company from commenting on such matters and referred questions to the Department of Aviation. Pride, the Department of Aviation spokesman for O'Hare, did not respond to followup questions seeking more detailed information in regards to parking enforcement and towing policies at airport lots. So is the city really planning to collect the enormous sum of money from Fitzgerald?
"Ms. Fitzgerald may contact the Department of Finance to resolve this matter," answered DOF spokesman Holly Stutz via email, punctuating her statement with a breakdown of the number of tickets and notices issued to Fitzgerald and referring The Expired Meter to a Freedom of Information Act option if more information was wanted.
Payment plans are available from the city to pay off larger amounts of parking ticket debt. But when a driver's license has been suspended or the vehicle has been booted in Fitzgerald's case, the city requires at least a 50 percent down payment and the registered owner given one year to pay off the balance. Although in some cases the city will agree to 24 months of payments according to Arnold Scott Harris, none of these are realistic options for Fitzgerald, who is unemployed.
According to the city's ticket search website, the abandoned car was booted and Fitzgerald's driver's license has been suspended. Fitzgerald's lawsuit asks the court to find she was not the owner of the car and therefore not liable for the parking tickets. At worst, the filing asks that the city and United Airlines should be responsible for towing the abandoned car from the parking lot on November 17, 2009,and thus no tickets should have been issued after that date. The $100,000 parking ticket case will first see the inside of a courtroom in early May of next year.
The Monte Carlo was finally impounded on October 26, 2012. The car remains behind the high, razor wired topped chain link fence of the O'Hare auto pound, just a few blocks from where it had forlornly spent the past three years. Its ultimate fate will most likely be the scrapyard. That is, unless someone pays the over $100,000 in parking tickets still owing.