November 01, 2014

Online Litigation and Adjudication of Local Ordinance Violations

By John C. Allen IV

One of the most fundamental aspects of the practice of law is that if a person has a court date, then he or she has to show up. Typically, lawyers can find a way to modify the most hardened rules; after all, it is part of the job description. Parties may be allowed to send representatives in their stead. Courts and administrative hearings departments use telephone conferences or even videoconferences. Still, no matter how much the burden of a physical appearance is reduced, the inconvenience remains. A petitioner or respondent in a legal matter still must find the time out of his or her daily schedule to come to court. Quite often, individuals must take time off of their jobs to appear and, depending on the nature of the proceedings, a family member or friend must do the same in order to accompany the person. Within the realm of minor ordinance violations, that inconvenience graduates into an insurmountable obstacle in the mind of the respondent. Unfortunately, most respondents choose to accept the consequences of failing to appear at the scheduled hearing. This action usually results in a default judgment setting out fines and costs that must be paid, voluntarily or involuntarily.

Those of us within the legal system may find it comfortable to simply accept these poor decisions as the consequence of not accepting responsibility. As judges and attorneys, this is our livelihood and we understand all the nuances of the legal system. From our complacent positions, it is hard to see the burden that is placed on the average layperson and the fear he or she feels when thrust, unwilling, into the legal system. Courts can ease these problems. From the vantage point of a governmental unit like the Cook County, Illinois, Department of Administrative Hearings (CCAH), which mostly adjudicates nonmoving ordinance violations in order to lessen the burden on the state-level trial courts, the question arises as to how the constituents of Cook County best can be served when they receive a citation for some kind of violation. In other words, CCAH sought to proactively find new ways of allowing respondents to resolve their citations that remove obstacles and encourage participation.

CCAH was created in 2009 in an effort to provide expedient, independent, and impartial hearings. A Cook County ordinance allowed for cases that were being heard by the Municipal Division of the Cook County Circuit Court to be moved to the new CCAH. The cases brought are civil in nature rather than criminal. Therefore, the hearings are less complex than a circuit court trial; however, we still follow a basic structure to ensure fairness and due process. The goal of CCAH is to provide expedient, independent, and impartial hearings to citizens who are alleged to have violated a Cook County ordinance.

Initially created to handle simple tickets written by the Cook County sheriff and building code violations, CCAH is consistently growing to become the central unit that adjudicates violations that arise in any part of Cook County government. By intergovernmental agreement, tickets written by the Cook County Forest Preserve District, a separate governmental district, are also handled by CCAH. In the first three years of its existence, CCAH handled 10 to 15 thousand cases a year. As the department has expanded the number of client agencies, its caseload has increased dramatically to over 40 thousand cases a year. This increased workload has made CCAH the second largest revenue-producing department in Cook County government, second only to the Department of Revenue, the tax-collecting arm of the county.

As with any government entity whose primary purpose is to adjudicate legal disputes, the focus of the agency must remain the fair and impartial resolution of each individual case. Due process must be our paramount focus. Because an Administrative Hearings agency is not a traditional court of law, it must be doubly aware of its impact on the constituency it serves.

Realizing that the basic requirement of appearance in person by a party creates a significant burden on a respondent, CCAH quickly began looking for ways to lessen that impact with the encouragement of the Cook County Board of Commissioners and its president, Toni Preckwinkle. Cook County operates five suburban courthouses throughout the county, in addition to the main court complex in downtown Chicago. For tickets written by the sheriff’s police, every respondent is allowed to choose a suburban courthouse where his or her case will be heard. This option allows respondents to travel to a location that is convenient for them and reduces traffic that has to come to downtown Chicago. Parking in Chicago is a substantial expense, especially when the car is parked for more than two hours. Even though the vast majority of the caseload comes from sheriff’s police citations for offenses such as parking and vehicle stickers, all other county departments have their cases heard at the main hearing rooms in Chicago.

Because the sheriff’s police provided the highest volume of cases, this is where the focus of reducing the burden on constituents began. Approximately three years ago, respondents were allowed the privilege of contesting a violation written by the sheriff’s police through the mail. Sheriff’s police cases were chosen because a properly written and served ticket is prima facie evidence of the violation, which eliminates the need for the presence of an officer to testify to the facts of the citation. A “mail-in appeal” allows a respondent to simply send in whatever documentation he or she believes is relevant, along with a statement detailing his or her defense to the ticket. While this proved to be a convenience to some, certain limitations became apparent. First, there were the expected issues that inherently go along with postal mail. Bad addresses, insufficient postage, and timeliness all conspired to create unanticipated aggravations. Second, there was a natural back and forth between the County and a respondent through the mail that enhanced those problems. Third, a respondent would have a difficult time providing quality photographs and video evidence. While poor-quality photographs and blurred scans of documents were received in abundance, they rarely had the desired impact. Lastly, in cases where a finding of liability was issued, the fact that the respondent was not physically present often meant the respondent had no incentive to promtly pay the fine and costs. So even in the event that all the required notices were received and a timely mail-in appeal was presented, along with a promptly delivered finding and order, there was no easy way to ensure appropriate collection. While the customer service was provided, the risk to the County was increased.

One solution to these problems was to use current technology and allow constituents to contest their sheriff’s police citations over the Internet. In essence, the goal was to expand the mail-in appeal process by allowing respondents to contest the citations by going through an online, Internet-based process rather than sending in hard-copy statements and receipts. This online appeals system would be accessible to a user from either the department’s website or another Internet-based website hosted by the County or an independent contractor. Currently, CCAH uses a third-party website developer to host its website; however, there is always the possibility that the County’s technology wing could bring this website back into County development, so there is a need for the web interface to be portable enough that it could be housed on any secure website provider.

Currently beginning beta testing, this new system was expected to go live on October 6, 2014. The online system would access and interface with the case management system that is used by CCAH. CCAH maintains a database containing all relevant information about every case that is scheduled to be heard. The case management system is the repository for all information related to all of the cases heard by CCAH and is used by the department staff on a constant basis to access cases and build the dockets that will be heard by the administrative law judges (ALJs). The system requested would access the database to match the particulars of the citation such as citation number or license plate number. A name search was ruled out because experience with handling database integrity issues quickly showed that the huge vagaries of how people spell and misspell names makes any search based on a name too problematic to efficiently resolve.

A respondent who has received a citation would be able to search for his or her citation through a variety of factors such as the license plate number or the citation number. A successful search would result in a list of matching tickets and their balances. As a respondent was presented with the tickets that needed resolving, he or she would also be shown verification of whether that violation can be contested through the online process, in the event that the respondent chose a case that had already been resolved or paid. Frequently, a family member or another interested party will have received notification of the ticket and simply paid it off to get rid of the problem. For example, a parent or someone who previously owned a vehicle (but didn’t change the license plate tags) will intervene for his or her own personal reasons.

While not visible to the user, this new system would make checks to ensure that the appropriate time frames have been met, that the dollar amounts are within appropriate statutory ranges, and that other hearing options are not pending. These checks are simple quality-control enhancements that prevent future misunderstandings. They also assist in maintaining the integrity of the database and allow both the Administrative Hearing Department and the agency that issued the citation an opportunity to clean up data-entry errors, which are an unavoidable issue with any type of database.

After doing the search, the respondent will be presented with a list of tickets that apply to him or her. Because it is possible for a ticket to contain multiple infractions, whenever the respondent selects a ticket, he or she will be presented with a list of the violations that go along with that particular ticket. A respondent may wish to contest some of the violations but not all of them. If so, the respondent is able to select each charge he or she wishes to contest. After selecting the tickets and violations that will be contested, the user is taken to a new, secure screen that allows certain information to be entered.

The new screen is where the bulk of the information that is needed to contest the ticket is entered. A respondent is required to enter his or her name, address, and other personal information that is relevant to the ordinance violation. The user is able to submit a statement or his or her version of the facts, as well as any additional information that the user feels is relevant to that particular case. On the same screen, the user is then presented with an opportunity to attach any electronic documents that he or she feels is relevant to the presentation. These attachments could be word processing documents, .pdf files, pictures, or videos. Currently, there is a limit of 10 megabytes to the size of the attachment for storage purposes. This limit protects the website from malicious users who may attempt to crash the system by overloading its capacity.

Once the user is satisfied with the presentation, the system would require the user to acknowledge that he or she has completed the case by checkbox or digital signature and affirm the veracity of the evidence submitted. The entire presentation or case would be uploaded to CCAH for review by an ALJ. This process would need to be repeated for each additional eligible citation. So in the relatively uncommon event that one respondent has received multiple tickets, this process will have to be repeated for each ticket that he or she wants to contest. While slightly cumbersome to the respondent, the risk to database integrity was too great to allow a respondent the ability to combine multiple tickets (cases) into one screen.

Once the submitted appeal has been sent by the respondent, the electronic package is delivered securely to CCAH’s case management system, which lies behind the County’s Internet firewall. The case management system receives the electronic package and places it in a queue for any of the Cook County ALJs to review. An ALJ is assigned to review cases that have been submitted electronically as part of the ALJ’s docket. The appeals submitted electronically are randomized before being presented to the ALJ so that no individual is able to predict or anticipate what the next case will be. As a standard audit protection, the County believed that randomizing the order of cases that were placed in front of an ALJ was an essential business practice.

Cook County Ordinance § 82-175(e) states that “a parking or compliance notice issued, signed and served in accordance with this section, or a copy of such notice, shall be prima facie correct and shall be prima facie evidence of the correctness of the fact shown therein. The notice or copy thereof shall be admissible in any subsequent administrative or legal proceedings.”1 This provision eliminates the need for County prosecution or testimony at any hearing involving a sheriff’s police citation. At any administrative hearing pursuant to a citation, the respondent is allowed to appear, testify, and appropriately present evidence to their defense, while the County relies solely on the ticket that has been presented.

Each reviewing ALJ first looks at the citation, regardless of whether the hearing is in person, by mail, or through the online contest system, to make sure a prima facie case has been established. The ALJ would next look to the statement and exhibits supplied by the respondent. After considering all the facts presented and applying the applicable laws and rules, the ALJ makes a decision in the matter. This decision is entered into the case management system. Once the case management system has been updated with the judge’s finding, the online appeals system would be triggered to send by e-mail a response to the person contesting the violation. The response would include a short statement indicating the judge’s finding as well as a document in the Adobe Reader (.pdf) format of the final order.

Upon receipt of the decision of the ALJ, he or she will be made aware of the remaining options. The options are applicable to virtually every type of case that CCAH handles so the response that presents the options to the respondent can be simple, plain language of the sort that is included in any form of communication to the respondent. The respondent always has the right to appeal the decision of the ALJ to the Circuit Court of Cook County for administrative review or the respondent may pay the designated fine by the methods described. Included in the response are instructions to the respondent for electronic payment. While the physical connection to the respondent is missing, as in the mail-in appeals cases, the ability to pay online by clicking a link contained within the e-mail provides immediacy to the payment that was missing with the mailed orders.

The web-based approach also removes most of the inherent insecurity of delivery that accompanies hard-copy mailings through the U.S. Postal Service. Through e-mail the transmission of messages is instantaneous and both the user and the County have date-and-time-stamped acknowledgments when an e-mail was sent, which is an element of all e-mail systems. In the event an e-mail address was not entered correctly, the sender is usually notified that an e-mail was not delivered correctly. By allowing the respondent to include attachments, high-quality evidence can be included that allows the respondent the best opportunities to present his or her position. By providing immediacy and the ability to include attachments, the online system gives Cook County constituents increased access to the administrative hearings process that is novel and useful to both parties.

As government bodies explore new ways to serve their constituents while being mindful of their fiscal situation, local administrative hearings departments face the challenges that surround the coexistence of due process and increasing revenues. As judges and lawyers, we are sworn to prioritize the former; however, the budget departments that provide our funding have no such obligation. Our needs require exploration of novel efforts in order to satisfy all the obligations, especially the competing obligations, which are brought to bear. By rethinking an element of legal practice that was once considered inherent to the process, Cook County has provided constituents with an additional service while still providing a more effective tool for increasing revenues in a completely paperless process.

Endnote

1. Cook Cnty., Ill., Ordinance No. 10-O-72 (Nov. 16, 2010).