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Cities leaving banned traffic cameras on 'a gamble' says legal scholar

Iowa DOT gave instructions that 10 of 34 traffic cameras should be turned off in March

Traffic flows along the northbound lanes of Interstate 380 as workers install speed cameras on a road sign north of the H Avenue NE interchange on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010, in northeast Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/SourceMedia Group News)
Traffic flows along the northbound lanes of Interstate 380 as workers install speed cameras on a road sign north of the H Avenue NE interchange on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010, in northeast Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/SourceMedia Group News)

Cities are taking a "gamble" by continuing to collect fines from automated traffic cameras that were ordered turned off by the state last month — and some of which have been out of compliance with state rules for more than a year — a legal scholar said.

If appeals to keep the cameras running fail, cities risk owing refunds to motorists who paid fines, said Arthur Bonfield, a University of Iowa law professor. Bonfield helped write Iowa's administrative procedure rules.

A judge may exempt all past tickets, but the court also could order all tickets be refunded, or people could act individually or as a group to get their money back, he said.

"I think it is simply a gamble the cities are taking that they are not going to have to pay the money back," Bonfield said.

Iowa's automated traffic camera programs present complicated legal questions that could keep banned cameras on for some time, despite Iowa Department of Transportation's order to turn several off last month.

There's the question of whether the cameras are legal, and if not, whether violators deserve refunds. If they do deserve refunds, at what point in the camera’s history should the refunds begin?

A separate but related question of who has the authority in the matter — the Iowa DOT or cities — also is unresolved.

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Most cities are appealing the order, and some are considering further legal action if their appeal fails.

"I'm hoping each of these cities has a corporate lawyer advising them and looking at the potential for refunds," said James Solomon, director of program development of training for the Itasca, Ill.-based National Safety Council.

Cities such as Chicago, New Orleans, West Palm Beach, and Kansas City are facing challenges for full or partial refunds.

Two class action lawsuits already have been filed by motorists — one in Cedar Rapids and one in Des Moines — arguing the camera programs are illegal and motorists are owed refunds.

Appealing the appeals

The Iowa DOT ordered turned off 10 of 34 automated traffic cameras on Iowa's primary highway and interstate system on March 17. Cedar Rapids, Muscatine, Council Bluffs, and Des Moines appealed by the April 17 deadline and left the cameras running. Davenport complied with the order.

Sioux City, which is suing the Iowa DOT over traffic camera rules, was granted an injunction to operate the cameras without appeal until May 20, Mayor Bob Scott said.

The DOT said it would rule on the appeals within 30 days, or by mid May, which would be the final option within the agency.

Cities are skeptical about their appeals given the same people who issued the order to remove the cameras also are reviewing those complaints. If appeals are denied, the cities then can try in district court.

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“We may not have the best ear when it comes to the appeals process,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said. “But that is why we have a third branch of government, and we might end up of allowing the judicial branch instead of the executive branch of government to settle things.”

Corbett said the DOT hasn't revoked permits for the cameras since it enacted rules putting several cameras out of compliance in February 2014. So the city believes the cameras are legitimate.

"During that phase of this saga, we have not felt the city is at risk from some kind of decision that is retroactive," Corbett said. "I suppose if the DOT officials send notice that our permit is revoked, and if they are officially revoked, that might change the scenario a bit.

“But we believe we have strong case to continue using the cameras."

Jerry Anderson, a professor at the Drake University Law School, said he believes the cities are on solid legal ground for keeping the cameras active until the DOT appeals process is complete.

"Once the agency issues a final decision, then they would have to turn off the cameras, unless the agency grants a stay, pending judicial review," Anderson said.

Steve Gent, Iowa DOT director of traffic and safety, said the DOT would grant a stay, if requested. This means the DOT would agree to not to enforce turning off the cameras until after court proceedings.

But, Gent said, that just means the DOT won’t intervene. It doesn't necessarily mean the cities wouldn't be liable if motorists fought for refunds, he said.

"I think that is where the cities end up on thin ice," Gent said. "Getting the stay from the DOT does not relieve the cities from any responsibility they have in the jurisdiction operating their camera program. Just because the cities can do something doesn't mean they should."

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Fellow University of Iowa law professor John C. Reitz said the bigger issue is who has authority over the roads and cameras — the DOT or the cities. This distinction likely will dictate whether the cameras stay or go.

He added that he doesn't believe the case for a refund is strong, but he said these aren’t easy legal questions to answer.

"It’s pretty murky," Reitz said.

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