Government Siphons Tax Refund From Wrong Scofflaw

2012 state law allows local governments to recover debts, fines

Just as a 2008 federal law wiped out any statute of limitation for a debt owed to the federal government, a state law passed last year allows local governments to siphon debt from tax refunds for unpaid parking tickets, red light violations and other fines.

It’s a law that's caught many taxpayers by surprise. But even more troubling is when those state and local governments get their records wrong.

Case in point: Stickney resident Joe López, who was expecting his 2012 state tax refund but instead got another -- and much less agreeable -- surprise in the mail. It was a letter from the state telling him his entire refund of $239 was seized in relation to old parking ticket debt.

López said he was stunned because he never received notice of any such 23 violations from the City. Investigating, he says he began to understand why.

"I give all my information, and [the state representative] said, 'You own a white Aurora?' And I said, 'No I do not. I own a white BMW.'"

According to López, the representative told him she believed his records were "mixed up with someone else." And he learned the other person owed $3,400 in tickets.

Lopez said he called multiple times over two months to ask the state how he could clear his name, but his appeals fell on deaf ears. According to López, a representative said he needed to appeal, or "they are going to take your money and you’ll never see it again."

Mike Brockway, perhaps known better by his online persona, The Parking Ticket Geek, said he finds the whole situation troubling.

"We’re expected to trust the city that their records are perfectly clean and everything’s right. And even if there’re not right, the city’s not good about responding to you," said Brockway.

He said the innocent consumer often finds it impossible to appeal because the system is geared at one main goal: bringing in money for the city.

"Obviously we have two entities that are not communicating, except from that monetary stand point," he said.

In López's case, the two government agencies (state and city) were working together under the 2012 Local Debt Recovery Act.

"I think in general most people are not aware of it," said Brockway. "But people are being made aware of it when they're getting those nice letters from the comptroller's office saying money has been taken out of your state refund."

When Joe Lopez told NBC 5 investigates he couldn’t get answers, we filed a Freedom of Information request in order to see the city’s proof of the tickets and the details of the violations involved. NBC 5 Investigates received two things from the request: copies of redacted tickets and an admission from the city that it had been chasing the wrong Joe López.

A spokesperson for the Department of Revenue would not elaborate beyond saying the case had been "resolved." That was news to Joe López, who at that point had not received his refund. Shortly after our calls, López says he did get his state tax money refunded, adding that hopes the city now has its records straight.

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