Talking on the phone while driving — a cautionary tale

Sauganash resident John Blaha candidly admits his guilt and carelessness.

In mid-January he was pulled over in the North Michigan Avenue shopping district by a Chicago police officer and written up for driving while talking on a mobile without using hands-free equipment.

He didn't beef. He agrees with the prohibition. It was just that he'd had trouble getting his new cellphone to sync with his earpiece, and since he runs his own electrical contracting firm it's important that he answer his calls. Not an excuse, mind you, but an explanation.

The officer told him — correctly — that the citation wasn't a traffic ticket, as such, but a notice of violation of the city's municipal code, more like a parking ticket, and he could simply mail in the $100 fine, Blaha said.

Other violations in the same general category include public urination, smoking on the CTA and hanging out in a park after curfew.

"I went home and put the ticket among my stack of bills to be paid," he said.

When Blaha, 52, prepared to mail off the check about a month later, he was alarmed to see on the citation that his fine had been due seven days after the infraction. He said he then attempted to call the city Finance Department to explain his situation and assure the staff that the check was on the way.

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! It's almost impossible to reach a real person at a city department anymore. Sure, an operator will answer the main switchboard — just dial 311 — but from there you're likely to end up in voice mail hell, talking to the wrong number or both.

Friday, for example, looking further into Blaha's tale, I called the city switchboard and asked to speak with the Finance Department spokeswoman, since the mayor's office failed to respond to my requests for her contact information.

The operator said she didn't have a directory of city employees — imagine that! — and so transferred me to the voice mail of the Finance Department's payroll unit. I then tried the main Finance Department number posted on the city's website — 312-744-2204 — and tried every option on its phone tree, including the broken ones, in an unsuccessful attempt to raise a live person.

Back at 311 a few moments later, the operator patched me to the Fire Department, where a man actually answered. I owe that man an apology for what I said as I slammed the phone down.

What I wanted to ask about was the punitive judgment the city rendered against Blaha: $440 in extra fees on top of the original $100 fine.

The cost of a city parking ticket doubles if you don't pay it in three weeks. The cost of a red-light camera ticket doubles 35 days after the date of the violation. These are in line with the deadlines and penalties I found in other jurisdictions as I poked around the Web.

So what, aside from an interest in closing the city's budget gap, justifies the swift, dramatic markup on municipal code infractions? (The seven-day late fee if you're busted for smoking on the CTA is even worse: $465 on a $35 ticket.)

Steven Sheely, deputy director of the city's Department of Administrative Hearings, got back to me later Friday and said the additional $440 judgment reflected the maximum penalty, and, in fact, would have been waived if Blaha's check had arrived within a month of the initial offense.

Blaha said he dated and mailed a check for $100 a week before the month was out. Sheely said the check didn't arrive until nearly a week after the month was out.

No matter who's right, it's a whopping penalty for tardiness. The judgment notice told Blaha that he could appeal by filing a civil lawsuit and paying "the appropriate state-mandated filing fees." In this case, the Cook County Circuit Court clerk's office says that fee would be $318 — a potentially refundable but risky investment for an appeal that would amount to "OK, I'm guilty, but come on!"

Blaha's story has a somewhat happy ending — a lawyer friend made a few calls and got the $440 additional penalty reduced to a more reasonable $60.

"But what about a person who doesn't know a lawyer willing to do him a favor?" Blaha asked.

Well, if that person has read this column, he's been warned.

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