$25.3 million class action lawsuit filed over McHenry court fines

Four people have filed a lawsuit against McHenry County 22nd Judicial Circuit Clerk Katherine Keefe, arguing her office improperly assessed fines instead of fees in traffic and misdemeanor cases.

The federal lawsuit seeks class action status, a collective refund of $3,525 to the four plaintiffs - Fernando Cruz-Bernal, Courtney A. Reinhard, Michael B. Hodge, and Thomas A. Venezio - and reimbursement of some $25.3 million collected from defendants in thousands of other cases since 2003.

"When McHenry defendants leave the courtroom, they have no idea how much they're going to pay," said Raymond Flavin, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys.

Flavin said a 2009 Illinois Supreme Court ruling clarified the difference between fines, which are to punish, and fees, which are to help cover the cost of doing business.

The supreme court ruled that the circuit clerk may only impose fees and other collar counties have adjusted to that mandate, Flavin said.

In McHenry, Flavin said, a judge in a traffic or misdemeanor case will order a defendant to pay a specific fine plus "court costs," which are later imposed by the circuit clerk's office.

The lawsuit argues that the circuit clerk has assessed millions worth of actual fines since 2003; in the cases of Bernal and Reinhard, the total they had to pay was more than the $2,500 maximum fine for their offenses.

"The ex post facto imposition of fines on the plaintiffs by the clerk (Keefe), violated the plaintiff's Constitutional right to due process of law as provided by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," the suit argues. "In each case the plaintiffs additional fines were added by the clerk (Keefe) without a finding or order of the presiding judge."

Keefe said her office received a copy of the lawsuit Thursday and she had forwarded it to the McHenry County state's attorney's office and deferred comment to that office.

A message left there was not immediately returned.

The next court date has not been set.

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