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Cook County Strikes Again

Cook County.  The second most populous county in the nation.  Home to the City of Chicago and 126 suburbs.  The population represents nearly 40% of the entire State of Illinois. The name itself wells up emotions of distrust, apathy, and inefficiency.  It is not uncommon for police officers to talk among themselves and hear the qualifier, “except in Cook County”.  The reputation is not undeserved.  For a unit of government with so much resource and potential, the cureless political disease it has always been is nothing short of tragic.  Effective June 1st, 2013, a new strain of infection has poisoned truck enforcement that should have both suburban government and the trucking industry crying foul.

In the last few weeks, several ITEA member truck enforcement officers from around Cook County have arrived in court only to be told their cases had been moved from their locally prosecuted courtroom into a state prosecuted courtroom.  Before explaining the ridiculousness of this, some clarification of different types of prosecution needs to occur.

When it comes to prosecution of traffic violations, there are three avenues: State Prosecution in Court:  All violations of the Illinois Vehicle Code (IVC) can be prosecuted by the State’s Attorney in court. Local Prosecution in Court: Municipalities can elect to prosecute their concurrent powers, in court, with a local prosecutor.  This is typical for petty and business offenses like speeding, stops signs and overweight trucks. Administrative Adjudication: Certain violations like parking, seat belts and red-light cameras can be prosecuted locally through administrative adjudication. Overweight violations cannot be prosecuted through administrative administration.  The 1st District Appellate Court ruled in Catom v Chicago that overweights are moving violations.  Prosecution of moving violations is reserved for the courtroom, whether through local or state prosecution.

When a municipality exercises its right to adopt the entire IVC by reference in their local ordinance, as authorized in 625 ILCS 5/20-204, the State law is not being prosecuted.  The law remains exactly the same, it’s just that it is now being prosecuted as a local ordinance.  So instead of the overweight charge reading “625 ILCS 5/15-111A” for an overweight, it now reads an ordinance number followed by the statute number, for example “(18-1) 15-111A”.

The law and the elements of the offenses are exactly the same.  A judge or jury still hears the case in court, but now the local town (which did all the work) can reap the higher percentage of the fine since it is prosecuted by local ordinance, not state law.

On June 1st, 2013, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez issued a letter to all suburban Cook County municipalities.  This document listed certain traffic violations of “625 ILCS” (state law) to which she claims the statutory right to exclusively prosecute.  This document is common practice and typically lists misdemeanor traffic offenses like driving with a suspended/revoked license or reckless driving…traffic crimes that can put people in jail.

New to the list this year were statutes covering operating an insured motor vehicles and overweight vehicles.  Why would the Cook County State’s Attorney wish to start exclusively prosecuting these violations?  Because these violations generate revenue.  If Cook County prosecutes the violations, they reap the bigger share of the fine money, not the locals.

What Cook County has done is tread upon the rights of local municipalities to prosecute traffic violations by a local prosecutor in court.  The problem is local prosecution is not under “625 ILCS” but under the IVC adoption ordinance number as stated above. Yet the letter restricts municipalities prosecuting with “concurrent authority” to only prosecute violations not listed in the letter.  It is a cleverly worded, sneaky and unlawful way to try and limit the constitutional right of local authority.

Even though the fines are the same regardless of who prosecutes the violations, this hurts the trucking industry in other ancillary ways.  Gone will be the days of coming into court and negotiating lower fines with the local cop who wrote the ticket and his prosecutor.  The Assistant State’s Attorneys are swamped in state court calls with all the “real” crimes.  Don’t forget the $194 in court fees Cook County piggybacks on the fine simply for exercising your right to due process by coming to court in the first place.

Just as it is wrong for Cook County to balance their budgets on the backs of the suburbs, it is wrong for suburbs to balance their budgets on the backs of the industry.  However, yanking authority from locals to prosecute this way will only serve one purpose – new and creative ways to circumvent the law to make up for lost revenue.

It’s out of balance.  State prosecution of everything is a hardship and swinging the pendulum that far left means an opposite and equally as bad reaction will occur.  Home rule towns will try their hand at administrative adjudication of regular overweight violations regardless of the Appellate Court ruling.  Some will create new ordinances with fines greater than allowed by statute for local weight restrictions.  Others will create ordinances to impound overweight trucks for collateral and administrative tow fees.  Every stride and effort towards fair, equitable and uniform enforcement slowly will be eradicated.

What’s next?  Is Cook County going to declare authority over home rule taxes at the gas pump and grocery store? You don’t have to like excessive taxing by any government unit, but a level of anger should well up inside you that monies are not going where they are supposed to go…to your local community.  Instead they are being squandered in the broken machine called Cook County.

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