“A way to harass poor people”


I’ve been talking to people familiar with DeKalb’s administrative hearing system to try to understand the point of it all. (One of the responses became the title for this piece.) At heart it’s theater, but hardly entertaining. What’s collected probably doesn’t cover the costs of putting on the show, and the performance contains the threat of real financial harm to people who can afford it the least.

This post is the latest in the series called “Prosecution of City Ordinance Violations” and it summarizes findings from at least 10 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests over the course of about a year and a half. I’ve put the same information into a file you can download from the City Barbs Facebook Group. The file includes a listing of the FOIA requests involved in research of the topic. Most conclusions drawn in the report came from city documents and a few from personal observation.


As is true of many Illinois municipalities, City of DeKalb runs administrative hearings as an alternative to using the circuit court system to prosecute violations of city ordinances. Ordinance violations are petty offenses that include parking violations, property code violations, and nuisances such as excessive noise, underage tobacco and alcohol use, and physical fighting. Some violations require a personal appearance at a scheduled hearing at the police station, while others are classified as “mail-in” offenses where the person who has been ticketed has the option to skip the hearing and pay the fine in person, by mail, or (if permitted, depending on the offense) online.

DeKalb holds administrative hearings twice per month on Monday mornings, beginning at 9:00 a.m. Attending are a contracted hearing officer, the city attorney as prosecutor, an administrative assistant, and a police officer to provide security. Officials will also bring an interpreter into the hearing room to assist Spanish-speaking defendants when needed.

Administrative hearings are not court proceedings. The hearing officer is a lawyer but not a judge. Officials usually use the terms “liable” and “not liable” instead of “guilty” and “not guilty,” and defense counsel is rarely, if ever, present. Evidentiary rules of the court system do not apply; in such a hearing, the defendant is found liable if the violation is more likely to have happened than not, and the citation itself is the evidence.

Hearing processes and proceedings are governed by Chapter 17 of the DeKalb Municipal Code, and Chapter 1 contains guidelines for penalties, including community service. When it comes to details about violations and penalties, the scope of these comments will be confined to behavioral nuisance violations as described in Chapter 52, titled “Offenses Against Public Peace – Safety and Morals.” This is because examination of enforcement and prosecution of this classification of offenses are the ones that appear problematic in how they are applied.

Specifically, this report will look at the ticketing and prosecution of children, apparent errors in ticketing more generally, and evidence that suggests fines and fees for nuisance violations in DeKalb are set impossibly high for the population that is primarily subjected to them. It is meant to be informational and will not include an exhaustive set of recommendations at this time, although city council investigation of policies and procedures is strongly suggested.

Facts are linked to source information or publications using the source information. Responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that were used as sources are listed and described on the last pages of this report. Some of the responses can be located and downloaded in the FOIA Center of the City of DeKalb website and others can be obtained upon request from the author or the city’s FOIA officer.

Ticketing and Prosecution of Children

On April 28, 2022, Pro Publica and Chicago Tribune jointly released an investigative report called, “The Price Kids Pay,” which looked at how school resource police officers in Illinois school districts routinely ticket children for minor school infractions that also happen to violate local municipal ordinances.

Pro Publica found that ticketing Illinois schoolchildren for ordinance violations thrust them into a system built for adults. A child has no right to legal representation or an interpreter in this setting and faces a hearing officer who may have zero expertise in dealing with children. Additionally, the child is likely to be found liable for an alleged offense due to the lowered evidentiary standard for proof, and if so may end up owing fines up to $850.

An accompanying resource to the exposé is Pro Publica’s online database of school districts that ticket students. It uses aggregate data provided by the municipalities and covers the school years ending in 2019, 2020, and 2021. The database shows school resource officers in DeKalb CUSD 428 (“District 428) were reported to have issued 135 citations in DeKalb high school and middle schools. Likewise, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests of the city reveal that some of the citations written to students on school premises during the 2021-2022 school year resulted in fines and even collection activity.

Following publication of “The Price Kids Pay,” Illinois officials including the governor and the state superintendent of education immediately denounced the practice of ticketing children in their schools, regarding it as a loophole to dodge a state rule that prohibits schools from levying fines for misbehavior. State legislators, meanwhile, began developing a bill that would close the loophole (and are currently working on another iteration of this bill).

Ticketing schoolchildren, then, is on its way out of Illinois, and the new intergovernmental contract agreement between City of DeKalb and District 428 reflects this, still allowing resource officers to issue citations at their discretion but agreeing that the disposition of citations should be community service. However, it may not be the district operating the community service program, because the district is allowed by the agreement to permit or supervise other programs. Does community service fall on the city? If yes, what kind of expertise can the city provide, what does district supervision entail, and what happens if a child doesn’t complete community service? For that matter, what do a child and family face when the child is ticketed for a Chapter 52 violation outside of school?

Earlier this year, DeKalb began discussing policy changes such as offering counseling and parenting classes as alternatives to fines — but none of this is yet codified in the DeKalb Municipal Code. Chapter 1 (General Provisions – Penalties) and Chapter 17 (Administrative Hearing Procedures) have not seen updates since 2018. Chapter 52 has been recently updated, but only to add penalties.

If DeKalb truly means to change the way it treats children in its administrative hearing process, ordinances need to be reviewed and updated to reflect the desired policy changes.

This should include consideration of additional measures to protect children’s and families’ interests, such as providing advocates at hearings and in meetings with law enforcement, ensuring hearing officers are qualified to work with children, and making a formal policy decision about whether monetary penalties are off the table when children are involved in ordinance violation enforcement.

Even more importantly, policymakers should establish mechanisms for oversight of these processes, including regular review of internal documents. Accountability cannot come via FOIA requests because of state juvenile confidentiality laws. They must be made by people qualified to examine records and processes in confidence.

Issues in Enforcement and Due Process

A May 2022 FOIA request to City of DeKalb for citation information yielded a report called a Citation Disposition Listing. Because the original inquiry concerned ticketing children in schools, the FOIA asked for citations issued from August 1, 2021, through May 22, 2022, to ensure schoolyear citations would be included. The range of information was further narrowed to cover only citations issued for fighting, battery, and disorderly conduct and the tactic resulted in a sample of 113 citations over the targeted period. A follow-up FOIA request then asked for copies of the 113 citations and the administrative hearing documents belonging to those cases as well. The response to this second FOIA contained 44 of the requested citations, which are assumed to represent the adults ticketed.

Among the findings:

• 37 of the 44 citations (84%) were issued on DeKalb’s northwest side, where some of the city’s poorest residents live.
• 28 of the 44 citations (64%) resulted in the person’s account being sent to collections by the end date of the targeted time period.

A more recent FOIA request that produced 12 citations for fireworks violations showed that more than half of them were written in the northwest quadrant, showing that a violation that clearly is a nuisance for residents citywide is more heavily enforced there.

Pro Publica noted that data submitted for a state-level investigation of school discipline, including police-issued citations, revealed widespread disparities in enforcement when it came to students of color and students with disabilities. If you understand the racial makeup of DeKalb, attending a city administrative hearing could trigger similar concerns for DeKalb’s enforcement of ordinance violations among the adult population as well.

Also concerning is that documentation of the hearing process for the 44 adult sample citations did not include the Notices of Hearing as required by Chapter 17. When asked about them, the FOIA officer replied that the citations are also the hearing notices.

This is a remarkable and troubling response. DeKalb’s citations are violation notices, and while they do include the hearing date, time, and place, they do not suffice as hearing notices because they are missing key information that Chapter 17 requires; namely, the fines and other penalties sought by the city, and information about how to settle or negotiate a compromise before the hearing date where city code allows.

Hearing outcomes show that if the alleged ordinance violator doesn’t show for the hearing, the city’s policy is to automatically impose the maximum penalty, even for a first offense.

For example, if a person gets ticketed for “Fighting within the City,” the minimum fine is $300. The citation has a hearing date and address, and a box checked that says, “No Appearance Required” (or on some citation forms, “Mail-in Fine”). The ticketed person receives no other information. They conceivably don’t know that if they don’t pay the fine before the hearing or show up in person, the hearing officer will automatically levy the maximum fine of $750 plus hearing costs of $100. They conceivably don’t know that if they don’t pay the fine and fees by a deadline, the city will add another fee of 35% and send the account to collections with the person owing $1,147.50.

The “automatic maximum” fine for nonappearance does not appear in city code or other policy documents. Minimally, the “automatic maximum” and the failure to deliver Notices of Hearing in contravention to Chapter 17 should be reviewed as soon as possible and corrected for errors of due process.

Chapter 52 Fines are Almost Never Paid

Referring again to the Citation Disposition Listings that covered most of the 2021-2022 school year, for the offense of “Possession of Cannabis,” the report shows 114 counts prosecuted and fines totaling $96,447.50. This comes to an average fine of $846. Payments on the fines totaled $4,483.45 at the time of the report date, for a fine payment rate of 4.6%.

The same report shows the city prosecuted 105 counts of “Fighting Within the City.” Fines assessed for that violation totaled $71,285.00, the average fine was $649, and fines paid totaled $4,530.00. The calculation is 6.4% of fines were paid by the end of the report period.

Contrast the above examples with parking ticket fines from the same report. For the “Parking in a No-Parking 2am-6pm Zone” the rate of payment was 97%.

Cannabis possession and fighting were the top two Chapter 52 violations ticketed, with retail theft a distant third at 34 counts, and the frequency of most of the other offenses cited in that category in single digits. What they show consistently are very low rates of payments of fines.

It’s important to note that the Citation Disposition Listing documents show things stood on one day in May 2022, and it’s likely more people on the list paid their fines for weeks and even months afterward. However, City of DeKalb also produced a report of the adults’ accounts sent to collections across four years and the patterns are similar. For calendar years 2019 through 2022, more than 300 accounts of adult offenders that showed balances owed for Chapter 52 ordinance violations – more than 75 accounts per year on average — went to collections.

They appear to stay there. A FOIA request that asked for recovered debts paid by the collection agent to the city for the same four calendar years. The amounts suggest a recovery rate of little more than 15% of Chapter 52 penalty debt. What’s more, DeKalb’s contract with the collection agent requires, at minimum, an annual report of accounts that the agent deems uncollectible, but according to the FOIA officer, the agent has never done so.

Possible outside repercussions for residents facing collections actions, such as damage to credit ratings, are outside the scope of this report but worth exploring. Closer to home, debtors to DeKalb are prohibited from doing business with the city, such as obtaining licenses and permits. DeKalb appears to be putting scores of its own residents into a situation where the city doesn’t have to work with them, and it’s unclear when and how they get out.

Does DeKalb’s city council intend to create hardships in punishing low-level offenses? Assessing penalties that can’t be collected, and potentially bankrupting people for infractions too small to prosecute in a real court are absurd and cruel with few, if any, upsides.

Sources: Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Requests

N000118-051122 5/11/2022 Asking for citations issued by SRO’s for fighting on school premises “since the start of the school year last fall” (Aug 2021). The city denied release of records of students under 18, so the response contained records for only two students. File is 7 pages.

N000141-052522 5/25/2022 Asking for registers of individual fines paid for ordinance violations covering 8/1/2021 through 5/25/2022. Two reports were sent. The first is a register of receipts that covers two receipt account labels, ADMHEAR and MAILFIN. An ADMHEAR entry can refer to a fine on a violation that requires a personal appearance and/or an administrative fee on a mail-in fine. MAILFIN comprises fines only, and generally (but not always) denotes violations where appearance at a hearing isn’t necessary. File is 20 pages. Payments might be split into both ADMHEAR and MAILFIN accounts for one citation, typically where the offense doesn’t require an appearance (MAILFIN) but the type of payment incurs an administrative fee. The receipt register includes fines for building code violations, towing/impoundment and other violations outside of Chapter 52 except parking/traffic, and is helpful for understanding collections recovery totals. File is 20 pages.

The second file from the same FOIA is a Citation Disposition Listing that covers information about the status of each citation for the requested period as of May 25, 2022. At the end of this report the sums owed and paid for each violation code type, and since all ordinance violations are included, including parking/traffic, it’s invaluable for understanding which fines get paid and which don’t. File is 238 pages.

N000166-062322 6/23/2022 Asking for city’s schedule of fines and fees for ordinance violations and their effective dates. The document includes information for ordinance violations outside of Chapter 52 except for parking/traffic and is a good quick reference for min/max fines and whether an offense requires a personal appearance at a hearing. File is 51 pages.

N000230-090622 9/6/2022 Asking for 113 specific citations and administrative hearing documents derived from the Citation Disposition Listing covering the period of August 2021 into May 2022 and involving Chapter 52 violations of fighting, battery, and disorderly conduct. Since the city withheld all records involving juveniles, subtraction of the 44 sets of records received in the city’s response is presumed to reveal the number of juveniles prosecuted during the period; and the hearing records led to the discovery that the city is not sending out hearing notices as required by city code.

N000271-102822 10/28/2022 Asking for forms, brochures, memos, and other documents used in court supervision, which would include community service. No responsive documents were returned except for chapters of city code and one adult plea document. Hearing documents received for request N000230 included one sentence for community service as evidenced by a signed agreement between city and defendant, and a list of local not-for-profit organizations for defendant to contact, suggesting the city offers little structure or guidance.

N000114-052623 5/26/2023 Asking for accounts sent to third-party collections from January 1, 2018 through December 31, 2022 for Chapter 38 (alcohol-related) and Chapter 52 (nuisance-type) violation fines and fees, and owed by individual DeKalb residents as opposed to organizations. This document, a table, doesn’t appear to be an automatically generated report, perhaps because it uses people’s names on the individual accounts and copied/pasted in a way to exclude juveniles. File is 8 pages.

N000140-060223 6/22/23 Asking for records related to the city’s recovery of unpaid fines and fees for ordinance violations for calendar years 2019 through 2022. Received was a receipt register accounting for payments from Municipal Collections of America (MCOA) over this period. File is 23 pages. Refer also to N000141-052522 for an explanation of what fines and fees go into the accounts with the ADMHEAR and MAILFIN labels.

N000144-063023 6/30/23 Asking for annual reports from DeKalb’s contracted collections agency, Municipal Collections of America (MCOA), for reports since March 1, 2019, of debt deemed uncollectible by MCOA that are required by the contract at least annually. No responsive records were found.

N000148-070523 7/5/23 Asking for citations issued for fireworks violations from January 1, 2019, through the date of the FOIA request, to ascertain whether the trend of enforcing ordinances more heavily in the northwest portion of the city (“Annie Glidden North”) holds true for a violation that is clearly a nuisance for residents citywide. Of the 12 citations provided, 7 of them were written in Annie Glidden North, 2 were written close to the borderline of northwest and southwest, 1 was 100% redacted (indicating a child was cited) and 2 were written in the northeast and southeast quadrants. File is 19 pages.

N000239-101923 10/19/23 Asking for another Citation Disposition Listing, this time covering tickets issued in May and June, 2023, to see if the rates of ticketing, fines assessed, and accounts sent to collections are similar to the rates found in the schoolyear 2021-2022 sample. They are. File is 36 pages.