Intolerance of government abuse drives lawyer behind traffic camera lawsuits

Victories in camera suits elusive, but Larew finds 'the whole mood is shifting'

James “Jim” Larew at his office in Iowa City on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
James “Jim” Larew at his office in Iowa City on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The lawyer behind the legal crusade against automated traffic cameras in Iowa has a history of uphill battles.

Jim Larew, 63, an Iowa City native who continues to live and practice here, led a bid to create a city-owned utility in Iowa City, sued an agriprocessing giant over air pollution affecting thousands of residents in Muscatine and has filed more than a dozen lawsuits challenging the legality of traffic enforcement cameras that have ticketed hundreds of thousands of people.

“I strongly believe government can make a difference in people’s lives, but I am intolerant of abuse of government,” Larew said.

“What does it mean to be treated as a citizen by a governmental process?”

- Jim Larew, lawyer

His career has crossed paths with numerous progressive political candidates and causes, large impactful issues and wide-ranging legal cases.

While earning degrees at Harvard University and the University of Iowa College of Law, Larew dropped in and out to work for Democratic U.S. Sen. John Culver in Washington. He ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1980, served as the trial attorney for multiple railroads and may be best known as the general counsel and chief of staff for former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat in office from 2007 to 2011.

At this point in his career, he works at the Larew Law Office in an unassuming two-story brick building on the north side of downtown Iowa City. He also has offices in Des Moines and Muscatine.

He focuses on trial work and gravitates to cases that both impact a lot of people and have the potential to “bend the course of history” through law.

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Due process, or rights afforded to citizens to safeguard against overreach by government, is an area of particular interest — as the traffic camera cases attest.

He received a couple of tickets early on after the cameras were installed in 2010 in Cedar Rapids, and quickly identified legal issues.

Soon motorists began contacting him for representation. But it wasn’t until the Iowa Department of Transportation in 2014 said some Cedar Rapids cameras weren’t in compliance — but the city said it planned to continue issuing tickets anyway — did Larew file his first lawsuit.

Larew has now filed for several class-action lawsuits in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines and numerous individual cases, contending automated traffic cameras — which snap pictures of speeders and mails tickets to registered owners of the vehicles — are unconstitutional and violate people’s due process rights.

“I try to probe the system and demonstrate whether or not the system is obeying or guided by fundamental precepts of due process,” Larew said. “What does it mean to be treated as a citizen by a governmental process?”

The liberal lawyer has found unlikely allies among libertarians.

This month, Larew filed the latest lawsuit contending the city of Cedar Rapids and its collections firm, Municipal Collections of America, had exceeded the statute of limitations and violated other rights in mailing out late payment notices for more than 200,000 unpaid tickets.

To date, Larew has not had many victories in his fight against traffic cameras, but he doesn’t plan to give up any time soon.

“So far, I’ve not been greatly successful,” he said. “At the same time, I feel the whole mood is shifting and people are taking a second hard look at the camera regimes.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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