Parking meter in Chicago
Photo: M. Spencer Green (Associated Press)

Parking fines can saddle low-income drivers with a relentless amount of debt and a joint effort from ProPublica and Mother Jones found that thousands are actually going bankrupt in Chicago from the cities aggressive effort to collect on parking fines.

ProPublica and Mother Jones dug into Chapter 13 bankruptcy petitions filed in the federal court of the Northern District of Illinois, and found a sharp increase over the last year as a result of parking tickets:

From the story:

In 2007, an estimated 1,000 Chapter 13 bankruptcies included debts to the city, usually for unpaid tickets, with the median amount claimed around $1,500 per case. By last year, the number of cases surpassed 10,000, with the typical debt to the city around $3,900. Though the numbers of tickets issued did not rise during that time, the city increased the costs of fines, expanded its traffic camera program, and sought more license suspensions.

The result: more debt due to tickets.

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It’s a problem fueled both by the city’s increasingly aggressive ticketing to boost revenue—tickets brought in nearly $264 million in 2016, or about 7 percent of the city’s $3.6 billion operating budget—and a handful of law firms that pitch bankruptcy protection as a cheap solution to drivers’ woes.

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A parking fine is regressive. For a low-income driver, it takes a greater proportion of their income to pay off the ticket than a well-off motorist. And when a driver gets trapped under parking ticket debt, problems immediately start to rack up.

Here’s one example from the piece:

That year alone, [Laqueanda] Reneau got 15 tickets, including seven $200 citations for not having a city sticker. Later, she received a dozen tickets for license plate violations on another used car that couldn’t pass emissions testing, a state requirement to renew her plates.

“Those tickets have followed me until this freaking day,” said Reneau, who is 25.

Because of the unpaid tickets, the city garnished her state tax refunds. Her car was impounded and she couldn’t pay for its release. Her driver’s license was suspended. Unable to come up with $1,000 to enter a city payment plan, Reneau did what thousands of Chicago drivers do each year: She turned to Chapter 13 bankruptcy and its promise of debt forgiveness.

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And that leaves drivers between a rock and a terribly hard place: Either get into a city payment plan or enter bankruptcy, which screws up their credit score. It’s a terrible cycle.

The story’s well worth your time and shows just how much trouble can arise from a simple parking ticket.