In 2014, Forest Park police took to the I-290 Expressway to patrol for traffic violations, thanks to computer technology that allows an instant match of license plate numbers with driving records. This year Forest Park police pulled over at least 30 drivers on the Ike after the computer flagged their plates.
The arrests are part of a streamlined traffic patrol strategy in Forest Park that has almost doubled the number of drivers nabbed for “driving with license suspended” (DWLS) in the past two years. The village reported 171 DWLS arrests in 2012. That number rose to 318 thus far in 2014. Towing and fees have raised traffic fine revenue in the village.
Deputy Police Chief Thomas Aftanas said that because DWLS is a Class 4 misdemeanor — on par with simple battery or shoplifting — the department decided to save resources by not bringing every arrested driver into the station. Formerly, a DWLS arrest would involve around 1.5 hours of processing time at the station. Today, if the officer can confirm the identity of the driver, an ‘I-bond’ (or recognizance bond) is issued. This keeps more patrol officers on the street, Aftanas said.
Often the arrest results in a $500 tow ticket, paid to the village. Drivers also pay a $100 tow fee to one of the local towing companies, such as Nob’s or H & R. The tow companies charge $40 per day storage. Then there are fees paid at the Maybrook courthouse when the case goes to trial; Forest Park gets a small percentage of those fees.
When a solo suspended-license driver is nabbed on the highway, the vehicle is often towed away and Forest Park cops will provide a ride to a CTA stop.
People can have their license suspended for many reasons, including too many parking tickets, toll violations, three moving violations within 12 months, running red lights — even failing to pay child support or insurance.
In 2014, more than half of the drivers charged with DWLS in Forest Park were nabbed via random license plate check. Typically an officer runs a plate at a stop light, either by entering numbers into the computer or over the radio. The computer crosschecks with a Secretary of State database called the Illinois Law Enforcement Agencies Data System (LEADS). If a license plate pops up in LEADS, the officer calls up a driver’s license photo of the driver. If the driver looks like the photo, the officer has probable cause to curb the vehicle.
Random license plate checks resulted in 171 (or 54 percent) of the 318 DWLS citations issued so far in 2014.
“It’s 100 percent legal to run any license plate [an officer sees] at any time,” said Daniel Coyne, professor at Chicago Kent School of Law and a columnist for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
“Anything on the outside [of the car] is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. Running plates indiscriminately is well-settled law.”
The practice is also well established in Forest Park, said Deputy Chief Aftanas. “We have always run license plates.” Aftanas compared random plate checks to Forest Park’s yearly police safety checks, where officers pull over cars at a specified day and check licenses.
In April the Illinois Assembly banned the use of traffic-ticket quotas by police departments. Senate Bill 3401 goes into effect Jan. 1, 2015.
“We have never had a quota system in Forest Park,” Aftanas said. “We do encourage officers to do traffic enforcement. Some do more than others. It’s up to each individual officer. We try to be proactive rather than reactive.”
Coyne said some local Illinois police departments are finding they can bring down the cost of the police department by use of traffic patrols.
“From a business perspective, it might be the best thing a village could do,” he said. “There’s a statistical gain if an officer can bring in his own costs plus more. With high-speed technology, it costs them nothing to run the plate.”
“The alternative might be if police did not write tickets there would be a shortfall in the budget and taxes might go up,” he added.
A Review analysis of 172 reports for random-plate DWLS arrests showed 106, or 61 percent of those arrested were black, 47 or 27 percent were Hispanic, 18, or 10 percent were white and 1 driver (2 percent) Asian. A number of flashy vehicles were pulled over in the 2014 random license plate group. Cars pulled over included three Camaros, two Jaguars, several Dodge Chargers and BMWs. Around 20 SUVs and 10 Cadillacs were pulled over.
Coyne and Aftanas both pointed out the race of the person arrested does not necessarily correlate with which vehicle plates an officer chooses to scan. Many license plates could be scanned to result in one arrest.
“It’s hard not to know your license is suspended,” Coyne points out.
Of Forest Park’s 38 sworn officers, an average of three are on patrol at any one time, Mayor Anthony Calderone has said many times in public.
Aftanas said officers are encouraged to take a traffic detail if “things are light.” He said normally an officer might take two hours of traffic enforcement in a shift.
Forest Park is not alone in sending municipal officers out to patrol the expressways, said Illinois State Police Spokesman Jose DeJesus.
“[Forest Park police] are within their jurisdiction to patrol the highways,” DeJesus said. “Other towns do it all the time on the expressways.”
DeJesus said all officers, state and local, are taught traffic stop safety, and how to deal with drivers who’ve been pulled over.
“Any time you pull someone over there’s a concern for officer safety.”
Driving with a suspended license is not a serious crime, Aftanas said.
“People aren’t going to go to jail for it,” he said. “But it still has to be enforced.”
Coyne said drivers were aware of the chance of being caught if they drive with a suspended license.
“If your license is in jeopardy and you choose to blow that off, you drive at your own risk,” he added.