Government

Legal expert: Iowa cities continuing to issue speed camera tickets 'on very shaky ground'

Another says cameras are enforceable until appeals process is exhausted

Traffic drives under the speed enforcement traffic cameras on I-380 Northbound near the J Avenue exit in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, August 25, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Traffic drives under the speed enforcement traffic cameras on I-380 Northbound near the J Avenue exit in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, August 25, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Legal professionals say the cities of Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Muscatine are on “very shaky ground” should they continue to issue tickets from automated traffic cameras after a Polk County District Court judge this week backed up an Iowa Department of Transportation order to turn some off and move others.

If the cities continue to enforce those tickets, they could expose themselves to liability of having to repay fined motorists, they added.

“I would think they would be on very shaky ground writing tickets based on camera work in this period,” said John Reitz, who teaches administrative law at the University of Iowa. “Starting today, unless and until they get a stay, operating the cameras is illegal.”

The cities could seek a stay of the ruling, and if granted they’d have the court’s blessing to continue operating the cameras during an appeal, he said. However, Reitz said he doesn’t see a strong case for a stay.

Cedar Rapids officials said speed cameras remain on at five locations, including the four on Interstate 380 the Iowa Department of Transportation ordered turned off or moved in 2015. Judge Scott E. Rosenberg on Thursday affirmed the Iowa DOT’s order and authority in creating and enforcing rules on traffic cameras on primary highways and interstates.

“Unknown at this point,” Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said via text of the status of traffic cameras in Cedar Rapids. “The city has additional legal avenues to pursue. This is very early in the process.”

He said the Cedar Rapids City Council and mayor will decide whether to appeal the ruling at or before the next council meeting. The cities have 30 days to file an appeal of the ruling.

Officials from Des Moines and Muscatine have not returned calls seeking comment.

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Gary Dickey Jr., an attorney and managing member of Dickey & Campbell Law Firm in Des Moines who focuses on administrative law, said the cities will struggle with enforcement from now on regardless of an appeal, unless a stay has been granted.

“Continuing to do it in violation of the judge’s ruling exposes them to liability going forward,” Dickey said. “I never advise my clients to continue conduct a judge has said to stop doing or is unlawful. I would file motion to exclude evidence.

“They are going to have some enforcement obstacles going forward. And, if they are able to use the evidence it may expose the cities to liability if they are not successful on appeal,” he added. Tickets are based almost entirely on evidence collected from the cameras, so a ticket recipient would have a good argument the evidence was collected illegally and shouldn’t be used, Dickey said.

“There wouldn’t be much of a case,” he added.

Jerry Anderson, dean of the Drake University Law School, has a different interpretation.

He said the cameras remain enforceable until the appeals process is exhausted, unless the court specifically orders them turned off. The judge did not address issuing tickets in his decision.

“That would be the argument cities could make that until courts have had a chance to confirm the DOT’s authority, it’s not final, and they can continue to issue tickets,” Anderson said.

The issue of whether cities may need to reimburse motorists is trickier.

Anderson said that argument would likely come through a class-action lawsuit rather than this case between the cities and Iowa DOT, while Reitz said he thinks reimbursement could be difficult if a motorist has already paid a fine, thus admitting guilt.

Around the country where traffic cameras have been litigated, some cities have been ordered to refund past ticket collections after losing the case or as part of a settlement, including $1.3 million in Jefferson Parish, La., and $5.6 million in St. Louis, according to news reports. Other cases have not involved a refund.

The Iowa Department of Transportation has not intervened on the issuing of tickets.

“Our position is that as long as the issue is making its way through the courts it is up to the cities to decide if they should remain operational,” Iowa DOT spokeswoman Andrea Henry said.

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In March 2015, the Iowa DOT ordered 10 of 34 camera locations on primary highways and interstates around the state turned off, and another three moved or modified, stating they didn’t improve the safety of the highway system. After losing an appeal to the Iowa DOT director, the cities of Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Muscatine — three of six cities in Iowa with traffic cameras on state highways or interstates under Iowa DOT control — sued in June 2015 to keep the cameras on.

Those six cities, also including Davenport, Sioux City and Council Bluffs, issued more than 325,000 tickets generating more than $19 million in 2016, according to a state Legislative Fiscal Bureau report. Some cities reported numbers for calendar 2016 while others reported fiscal 2016.

Cedar Rapids, which generated $4.4 million for the city and $2 million for its camera vendor GATSO USA in fiscal 2016, has the most prolific traffic camera program in the state and was most impacted by the Iowa DOT order that called for two of the four cameras on I-380 be shut off and two to be moved closer in to the S-curve.

The traffic camera location at First Avenue E and 10th Street SE, which has speed and red light detection, also was to be modified so only a portion of the speed camera remained operational.

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

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