Government

Proposed change to traffic camera policy could 'overwhelm' Linn County courts

New plan would send unpaid tickets to court instead of collections

Traffic flows under the automated traffic cameras on I-380 northbound near J Avenue NE as seen in an aerial photograph in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Traffic flows under the automated traffic cameras on I-380 northbound near J Avenue NE as seen in an aerial photograph in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn County courts could be overwhelmed with automated traffic camera tickets under a proposed Cedar Rapids policy change in which unpaid tickets go to a small claims magistrate rather than a collection agency, officials said Thursday.

Linn County courts handled 6,889 total small claim cases, including 132 municipal infractions, in 2017. Add in unpaid citations from traffic cameras, and that number could spike to more than 10 times as much. In the most recent full year the cameras were ticketing, fiscal 2016, 154,323 tickets were issued and 45 percent, about 69,000, went unpaid, according to state records.

“That would be a huge influx on our docket,” said Carrie Bryner, one of five Linn County magistrates. “Those numbers are a bit overwhelming to think about them flooding the courts.”

In the past, ticket recipients who did not respond to mailed notices were consider liable by default and the debt was sent to a collection agency and eventually the state’s income offset program. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in August that the process sidestepped state municipal infraction procedures.

Under the city’s new proposal, which is part of a larger plan to resume issuing automated traffic camera tickets, motorists who don’t pay their tickets or wish to contest them would receive municipal infractions to be handled in small claims court.

The City Council would have to approve the plan, but a date for a vote has not been set.

“If we got to 50,000 municipal infractions that would have a significant impact,” said Carroll Edmondson, Linn County District Court administrator. “If we got that much of an increased workload that would cause me some concern and we’d have to talk to the magistrates.”

Last week, Cedar Rapids Police Sgt. Mike Wallerstedt said it would be hard to say how many cases might arise because “this is fairly new territory for us.” Police officials noted they plan to hire an administrative assistant specifically to handle municipal infractions if the plan gets a green light, but deferred questions about court impacts to court officials.

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It addition to the proposed ordinance change, the city would also eliminate the administrative appeal process for people contesting tickets.

Far fewer people contest tickets compared to those who simply ignore them. In 2015, The Gazette reported 9,972 tickets had been appealed between 2010 and 2014, of which about half — 5,055 — were dismissed.

Iowa City lawyer Jim Larew, who filed the lawsuit that went to the Iowa Supreme Court contending due process was being violated in the ticketing process, said the proposed changes signal the city agrees with arguments he’s been making for years and said it is essential the city follows state rules because it is the only way “vehicle owners can be assured municipal infractions are adjudicated by an impartial party using the burden of evidence Iowa law requires.”

In a separate lawsuit, a Polk County judge forced the city to stop issuing traffic camera tickets in April 2017, but the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the ruling in April 2018 opening the door for Cedar Rapids to begin ticketing again.

Steve Davis, spokesman for the Iowa Judicial Branch, had no reaction to the proposed changes in Cedar Rapids beyond saying the judicial branch has not done a fiscal impact analysis.

Bryner and Edmondson said they have not been contacted by Cedar Rapids officials to discuss the proposed plan but such a conversation may be needed.

They noted Cedar Rapids has the discretion of whether to file municipal infractions and may choose not to in every case because the process would also burden the city. Cedar Rapids would have to pay an $85 filing fee for each case and would have to serve a summons for each violator, more than a third of whom have been from out of state.

It’s not clear whether the $85 fee would transfer to the violator, but if it did it would more than double the typical $75 fine.

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Edmondson and Bryner noted Linn County courts have a fixed budget and the number of magistrates are set at the state level, so additional magistrates or staffing resources are unlikely, they said.

Despite the increased workload, Edmondson and Bryner said they would find a way to accommodate, although they did not know what that would look like.

“I foresee, yes, there would be a way to do it, but quite honestly that would mean a lot of more work for us to accommodate that into an already packed schedule,” Bryner said. “And, we can’t extend court hearings out so long they are not longer relevant. That’s not fair to the public.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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