Ever heard of a "test" ticket?" David Latko hadn’t. The Mokena man, who has vanity plates on his car, was issued several "test" parking tickets by the city, though he didn’t know it at the time.
When Latko tried to contest the tickets, he says he was turned away by the Department of Finance and told to pay the fines. That’s when he turned to NBC 5 Investigates to unravel the mess.
What we learned was a surprise.
Latko's story begins 30 years ago, when he first personalized his license plate with the word "FINANCE."
"It reflects what I do in business and in life. I own a finance consulting firm," Latko said.
The Mokena man said he's never had a problem until the state launched a program offering scores of designer plate options, allowing different versions of the personalized plates to share the same words or initials.
That's when Latko says he first spotted trouble, in the form of tollway violations in Florida and parking tickets from the City of Chicago, none of which he says belong to him or his very expensive sports car.
"It's like a race car. It doesn't go downtown," Latko said.
In Latko's case, his "FINANCE" plate is on a white Nissan GTR. The same word also appears on the personalized plate of a black Cadillac Escalade, registered to a driver in Sherman, Illinois. Latko's plate is for a passenger car. The other FINANCE plate is for a truck. It's a distinction apparently not noticed to some who write and enforce parking tickets.
"Now I'm getting tickets from the state of Florida, the state of Illinois and Chicago. With parking tickets you're always guilty until proven innocent," Latko said.
The Florida tickets where accompanied by a picture of the other Illinois FINANCE plate, and Latko was able to get them dismissed. But with the City of Chicago? Not so fast.
"Basically they hang up on you saying just pay the ticket," according to Latko.
And it gets worse: thanks to a a new appellate court ruling, if a driver's car is licensed in a business name, as is Latko's, that driver cannot defend him or herself. A lawyer must now do that.
"So what am I going to do? Pay a lawyer $300 to write a letter for me to defend against a $100/$150 ticket?It makes your blood boil," Latko said.
Latko initially turned to the Secretary of State's office for help, where officials there report a rise in complaints just like his.
"Our office has been very careful to produce a variety of tools to either law enforcement or parking enforcement or other types of enforcement agencies that would allow them to get the right vehicle and the right owner," according to Ernie Dannenberger, who is the Director of Vehicle Services.
They offer a letter to drivers to help them fight tickets made by their driving doppelganger. But Dannenberger says there is an easier solution. Ticket writers should get it right.
"All the information you need to get to the right person is printed right there on that license plate."
Turns out, according to the Chicago Department of Finance, the parking ticket writers in this case used the test word "FINANCE" at the beginning of their shift to make sure their handheld devices were working. The city said explained ticket writers were not aware there was someone with "FINANCE" on his plate, and will no longer use the term.
Latko's tickets have now been dismissed. NBC 5 Investigates asked the city why no one has figured this out or shared it with David Latko. The city has not yet answered that question.