Recently, an Illinois Appellate Court clarified the authority of a City’s administrative hearing department where there are overlapping state and municipal traffic regulations. In Potek, et al. v. City of Chicago, the Court held that certain local traffic violations were properly heard in City administrative hearings rather than before a court.
In 2005, the City amended its traffic code to prohibit all use of cell phones while driving. In 2010, the General Assembly passed a narrower law that only prohibited texting, emailing, or instant messaging while driving. It wasn’t until 2014, that the General Assembly expanded state law to prohibit the use of cellphones while driving altogether.
Between 2012 and 2014, a number of drivers were issued notices that they violated the City ordinance by talking on their cell phones while driving. These violations were considered, and several tickets were paid, through the City’s administrative hearing department. Certain ticketed individuals later sued the City, claiming that the City did not have the authority to decide their traffic tickets based on a state statute that they claimed restricted municipal authority to hold administrative hearings. This statute (contained in the Illinois Municipal Code) states that municipalities may not hold administrative hearings (1) beyond the scope of their statutory or home-rule authority or (2) to prosecute “any offense under the Illinois Vehicle Code or a similar offense that is a traffic regulation governing the movement of vehicles.”
The trial court dismissed the individuals’ claims for lack of standing and they appealed. The Appellate Court reversed the standing ruling, finding that the individuals did face a real injury as a result of the City delegating the traffic violations to the administrative hearing department rather than sending the tickets to a local court, so they had standing to challenge in court the administrative hearing department’s authority to find them liable and collect fines for their violations.
However, the Appellate Court did not rule in the individuals’ favor on their substantive authority argument and instead agreed with the City that its administrative hearing department had the authority to adjudicate several of the traffic violations based on the Illinois Municipal Code. Through the end of 2013, the City ordinance, and not state statute, prohibited talking on a cell phone while driving. As a result, the Court determined that the two laws at the time did not regulate a “similar offense” that required prosecution in court rather than before an administrative agency. The Court also noted that as a home-rule unit of government, the City’s authority to conduct administrative hearings “must be construed liberally.” The Court remanded back to the trial court those tickets that were issued after the state law had changed to prohibit talking while driving to determine whether the drivers were entitled to a refund to the fines they had paid to the administrative hearing department.
Authored by Erin Monforti & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink