Government

Iowa Supreme Court to hear oral arguments in traffic camera case

Arguments will be made on April 10

Traffic cameras are installed on signs northbound on Interstate 380 at J Avenue in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016. More than 60,000 tickets were issued from that traffic camera location in 2015. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Traffic cameras are installed on signs northbound on Interstate 380 at J Avenue in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016. More than 60,000 tickets were issued from that traffic camera location in 2015. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Iowa Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next month in a high profile lawsuit between two branches of government over who makes the rules for automated traffic enforcement cameras.

The case of the cities of Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Muscatine versus the Iowa Department of Transportation and the Iowa Transportation Commission will go before the state’s high court at 1:30 p.m., April 10 in Des Moines, according to a court notice filed this month.

The case hinges on a few key arguments: whether the Iowa DOT’s installation rules on traffic cameras violates the cities’ home rule powers; whether the Legislature had authorized the Iowa DOT to regulate methods that cities can use to enforce speed regulations within their own jurisdiction; and whether the Iowa DOT improperly established a 1,000-foot rule for separating speed cameras from speed limit changes.

“It’s significant in a couple of respects,” said Gary Dickey Jr., a lawyer and managing member of the Dickey & Campbell Law Firm in Des Moines, who has been following the case. “The Supreme Court is examining the interplay between state agency regulations and home rule, which isn’t an area they have covered extensively in recent times. So that is significant.

“The other significant thing is the Iowa Supreme Court doesn’t usually take cases on direct review.”

Each side will have 15 minutes to present their arguments, followed by an additional five minutes for the cities to reply. Dickey anticipates a ruling before the court’s term ends June 30.

Separately, the Iowa Legislature is considering the legality of automated traffic cameras but is at an impasse.

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The Iowa Senate has passed legislation banning the cameras, while the Iowa House passed a bill last week still allowing the cameras but under strict regulations.

The sides have yet to iron out an agreement, with less than a month of this year’s sessions scheduled to go.

Also unrelated, several motorists have sued cities with traffic cameras, contesting their legality. The cases include that of Marla Leaf, whose contest of a $75 speeding ticket against the city of Cedar Rapids has also made it to the Iowa Supreme Court. A decision has yet to be made.

The oral arguments mark the first significant step in the 3-year-old city vs. Iowa DOT lawsuit in about a year.

Last April, Polk County District Judge Scott D. Rosenberg ruled in favor of the Iowa DOT, saying the agency had broad authority over the cameras.

The Iowa DOT had ordered several cameras around the state, including in Cedar Rapids, be moved or turned off because they didn’t make the roads safer in early 2015, prompting the cities to sue.

The court denied an appeal by the cities to continue issuing tickets during the Supreme Court proceedings, although it allowed Cedar Rapids to continue collecting data.

Typically, the Supreme Court assigns appeals to the Court of Appeals while retaining the option of reviewing the ruling later. Taking the case directly is a sign of changing principles in constitutional law or of the case have a broad impact across the state, Dickey said.

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The state Supreme Court more commonly upholds a lower court’s ruling and secondly, the court generally defers to policy decisions made by state agencies, he said.

“Based on those two facts, if I had to guess, I’d say the state is likely to prevail on appeal,” Dickey said.

Even if Cedar Rapids were to lose the case, the Iowa DOT order would allow two of the four speed camera installations on Interstate 380 to continue operating — although from new locations — and red-light cameras on surface streets to continue.

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

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