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Illinois Comptroller Makes Photo Ticket Payment Optional
Citing red light camera corruption, Illinois comptroller refuses to garnish tax refunds to help municipalities collect unpaid photo tickets.

Susana A. Mendoza
Illinois motorists who receive a ticket in the mail may not have to worry as much about paying them. Citing widespread corruption in the automated ticketing industry, state Comptroller Susana A. Mendoza on Monday announced she would cut off the ability of municipalities to use the state to help enforce collection of $100 red light camera tickets. The change would take effect February 6.

"As a matter of public policy, this system is clearly broken," Mendoza said in a statement. "I am exercising the moral authority to prevent state resources being used to assist a shady process that victimizes taxpayers."

Under Illinois law (15 ILCS 405/10.05), the comptroller "may" withhold state income tax refunds for someone accused by a unit of local government of not paying a debt. The statute was meant for debts such as unpaid child support, but increasingly they have been used by Chicago suburbs and their private, for-profit photo ticketing vendors to collect on camera citations that have not been received or have been ignored.

The announcement came in the wake of a Chicago Sun-Times report that federal officials in September seized $51,611 in cash from a safe in Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski's home, and nearly $60,000 from Oakbrook Terrace Mayor Tony Ragucci. Both local officials reportedly denied the money was a payoff from photo enforcement contractor SafeSpeed.

Chicago was the epicenter of one of the nation's largest public corruption scandals. In 2014, top executives from Redflex Traffic Systems were caught bribing a Windy City transportation official to create the nation's most profitable red light camera program. Similar pay-to-play scandals have been documented around the world.

"This kind of arrangement stinks -- it's plain rotten," Mendoza said. "It exploits taxpayers and especially those who struggle to pay the fines imposed, often the working poor and communities of color. We can't continue the practice of municipal employees directly pocketing cash from contracts they arrange."

Local governments can still send the names of motorists to debt collectors, but under a 2015 legal settlement in effect nationwide, unpaid tickets may not be used to affect credit ratings. This leaves few realistic options for the suburbs.

"I think it's critical that the state's collection mechanisms should not be hijacked by political insiders to profit from an enforcement system whose integrity is now being seriously questioned," the comptroller explained."

Payment of mailed photo citations is entirely optional in states like Texas and Tennessee. In Arizona, Colorado and Virginia, such tickets can be ignored unless they are personally served.

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