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Scofflaws plead their cases, but most tickets upheld
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff

Trevor Hinchliffe successfully fought a red-light ticket from Elk Grove Village. The photo has been altered to remove personal information.

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

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Published: 7/12/2009 12:00 AM

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It's a sunny morning outside, but inside a chilly gloom pervades the utilitarian meeting room at the Elk Grove Village fire department.

There's a green carpet, neutral walls, uncomfortable chairs and a feeling of bureaucratic inevitability.

At the front are three uniformed police officers and a lawyer in a suit. In the audience sit more than 30 people, some in dresses or shirts and ties, others dressed casually. There are men, women, seniors, 20-somethings, whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, a scofflaw melting pot.

Welcome to the red-light camera hearing process.

Everyone in the room was caught by cameras mounted at different locations in Elk Grove Village and ticketed for ostensibly failing to stop at a red light. This is their chance to protest the $100 fine before a village-appointed hearing officer.

Among the crowd is Trevor Hinchliffe of Mount Prospect, who says he's innocent and describes the cameras as "a moneymaking system."

After an hour of watching 5-second video clips of cars approaching red lights, two things become apparent.

One - virtually every violation is for turning right on red, a trend reflected in other communities, where the lion's share of tickets are right turns.

Two - Hearing officer Thomas Bastian upholds most of the citations, although a handful of appellants get the coveted "not liable" call.

With a captive audience, Bastian has developed a shtick worthy of some TV judges. He watches the video attentively, then when it's an apparent slam-dunk, no-stop-at-the-white-line violation, he pivots his head to confront the accused of a quizzical look.

Some say they thought they stopped or it won't happen again. Bastian is good-natured in his responses. "You know what you have to do now," he tells one violator. "You learned something today," he comforts another.

Even though the tapes are reviewed by red-light vendors, in this case Lombard-based RedSpeed, and by police before a ticket is mailed, sometimes there's a glitch in the recording or the driver actually makes a bona fide stop.

But one man who complains he failed to stop because he was distracted by trying to avoid a big pothole is given short shrift.

"You failed to come to a complete stop," Bastian concludes.

Some offenders, however, get a break, including a lady who apologized for failing to stop, then explained she was en route to the hospital to see her mother.

"Technically, that's not a defense," Bastian says, adding, "Next time, be more careful."

Another woman asks for leniency explaining she's already got two tickets and this is her third. "Three-hundred dollars is a lot of money to learn a lesson," she pleads successfully.

When Hinchliffe's case comes up, he declares in his clipped English accent, "I stopped."

Bastian believes him and enters a finding of not liable.

But Hinchliffe wants justice, not a break. "Couldn't the village give us compensation?" he asks.

"The village has a reasonable belief you committed a violation," Bastian responds.

"It's wrong," Hinchliffe responds.

Hinchliffe says he stopped at the white line, as required by law, but crept up to see oncoming traffic as the camera snapped his picture at Oakton Street and Busse Road.

About 80 percent of people who appeal fines in person or by mail are found liable in Elk Grove Village, according to a breakdown of appeals between July 2008 and March 2009.

Krystal Hrobowski of Carol Stream thinks the whole system stinks. "I have to pay it," she says. "But it's ridiculous. They pick and chose who they let go. I stopped for a second. He says it has to be a complete stop."