CHICAGO - When Paula Johnson was driving home alone on Mannheim Road in Hillside in May of 2004, she had no reason to believe that she was about to uncover a decades-long illegal policy used by a local park district to supplement its revenue with traffic fines. Like most citizens, she immediately pulled over her car in response to the emergency lights of a police car. The police officer who approached her car had all of the indicia of authority to be detaining her: a marked squad car, uniform, badge and equipment, including a gun, nightstick, radio and flashlight. After complying with all of his requests, Ms. Johnson was given a "compliance" citation for allegedly driving without her headlights on. The citation told her she could avoid going to court if she mailed in a $30 fine within ten (10) days. Failure to pay the fine would result in a Complaint being issued for a court date that could also subject her to fines up to $500 and the reporting of a conviction to the Illinois Secretary of State. So Ms. Johnson did what most everyone would do in her situation and what the Memorial Park District was counting on - she paid the fine.
Then she did something that the Memorial Park District was not counting on - she consulted a lawyer.
After being hired by Ms. Johnson, Burke Burns & Pinelli, Ltd. immediately began to investigate the Memorial Park District's conduct. What began as a single plaintiff lawsuit involving a $30 traffic citation turned into a class action lawsuit spanning 25 years, involving over 35,000 plaintiffs and $1.8 million dollars in fines collected by the Memorial Park District. To get there, Burke Burns & Pinelli, Ltd. attorneys, Vince Pinelli and Amanda Ripp have engaged in a five (5) year battle with the Memorial Park District. During that time Mr. Pinelli and Ms. Ripp have withstood five (5) motions to dismiss and prevailed on interlocutory appeals to the Appellate and Supreme Courts of Illinois on the class certification ruling that they succeeded in having the Court enter.
Most recently on April 22, 2009, the Circuit Court of Cook County granted the Plaintiffs' request for summary judgment on liability against the Memorial Park District for its illegal policy of issuing traffic citations. The court agreed with Burke Burns & Pinelli, Ltd., that the evidence and arguments presented established that the Memorial Park District had a longstanding verbal policy of issuing traffic tickets to the public in "blatant disregard" of the state law that restricted the authority of park district police officers. By allowing its officers to detain citizens in excess of the limits of its power, the Memorial Park District had engaged in unreasonable seizures of citizens in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and was liable under federal law, section 1983, to the class plaintiffs.
For now, the battle continues as the parties engage in discovery to prepare for a damages hearing. While compensation may be years away, because of the appeals that may follow, Paula Johnson can at least have the satisfaction of knowing that her action had consequences. Upon the entry of summary judgment against it, the Memorial Park District immediately abandoned its policy and stopped issuing traffic citations to citizens driving on the public streets.