Government

Chief justice: Iowa DOT can't have 'unlimited authority'

Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Muscatine traffic camera case goes before Iowa Supreme Court

Attorney Richard Mull speaks Tuesday on behalf of the Iowa Department of Transportation at the Iowa Supreme Court as justices consider several traffic camera cases. (Pool photo by Rodney White/Des Moines Register)
Attorney Richard Mull speaks Tuesday on behalf of the Iowa Department of Transportation at the Iowa Supreme Court as justices consider several traffic camera cases. (Pool photo by Rodney White/Des Moines Register)
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DES MOINES — The Iowa Department of Transportation can’t have “unlimited authority” as it oversees the state’s primary highways and interstates, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark S. Cady said Tuesday as he questioned an agency attorney during oral arguments in a high profile, high stakes case about who has final say over disputed speed and red light cameras.

“You’ve identified all of these statutes that appear very general and then you use the general platform to bring in this specific (automated traffic enforcement) regulation,” Cady said.

Citing certain other cases, the justice said that “we can’t apply this in a way that is going to give unlimited authority for the DOT to regulate anything it wants.”

One of the guiding cases he cited is the 2017 case of Brakke vs. the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. In it, the court ruled the Iowa DNR had overstepped its authority in quarantining private land where whitetail deer were found with chronic wasting disease. Iowa Code had granted authority only to quarantine the deer, not the land.

The seven-member panel (six members attended Tuesday, Justice Daryl L. Hecht was absent) often interjected with pointed questions as attorneys for the cities of Muscatine, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines on one side and the Iowa DOT on the other made arguments in the 3-year-old case. The hearing lasted about 40 minutes. A ruling is expected by the end of June, when the court’s term ends.

The cities sued the Iowa DOT in June 2015 to block a March 2015 order to remove or take down several traffic cameras.

The order included removing two speed cameras as drivers on Interstate 380 leave the notorious S-curve in downtown Cedar Rapids, and moving two others closer in to the curve as drivers approach it.

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A lower court had ruled in favor of the Iowa DOT last spring.

The speed cameras are not issuing tickets while the case is on appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.

At the heart of the case is that Iowa Code makes no specific mention of automated traffic enforcement cameras. The Iowa Legislature has repeatedly punted rather than pass legislation addressing the cameras, both justices and attorneys noted Tuesday.

Richard Mull, who represented the Iowa DOT, contended the code grants broad authority for the agency to do whatever is reasonable to keep its roadways safe.

“The DOT highways, you could not specify all the potential conditions that could create problems in terms of safety, so the Legislature has chosen not to specify because they can’t,” he said.

Iowa justices challenged legal theories on both sides:

Where else does the Iowa DOT exercise authority not specifically granted by state law?

Why are cities contending they didn’t get to provide input as traffic camera rules were created, when staff members had attended public meetings where the case for the rules were made?

If the Iowa DOT wouldn’t step in when local police conduct speed traps, why step in now for the automated traffic enforcement devices?

If the Legislature didn’t intend to vest broad authority over primary highways, why didn’t the Legislature articulate the limitations, Cady asked Douglas Fulton, the attorney for Muscatine who spoke on behalf of the three cities.

“Why did they go ahead and talk about responsibility for planning, development, regulation and improvement?” Cady asked, citing language in the Iowa Code that empowers the Iowa DOT.

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The cities contend that merely is an introduction to the section of the code authorizing the Iowa DOT, and isn’t intended to grant broad authority. The authority is limited, Fulton said, noting “hundreds” of passages where the law specifically addresses different situations.

Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman attended the hearing and said he believed his side made a strong case for the justices to reverse the lower court decision.

“I just hope they reverse the decision of the lower court and allow us to use a proven and effective tool to keep people on Iowa highways safe,” Jerman said after the hearing, noting statistics that showed a reduction in crashes after the Cedar Rapids cameras were installed in 2010.

This is one of many cases around the country that have tested the technology, which law enforcement contend overwhelmingly is proven to make the roads safer while critics decry it as a money making scheme.

It is one of four traffic camera related cases before the state high court.

Last fall, the court heard City of Cedar Rapids vs. Marla Leaf, and Myron Behm et al. vs. City of Cedar Rapids and Gatso USA, which were based on people who received tickets contesting the cameras violate due process and equal protection. Gatso is the traffic camera vendor. Leaf and Behm lost in the lower court.

Also Tuesday, the court received without oral argument a fourth case — Weinberg et al vs. the City of Des Moines and Gatso USA.

Weinberg won one aspect of his case — that Des Moines’ administrative appeal process was flawed — in the lower court, and both sides appealed.

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Court watchers have said the Supreme Court may issue the four rulings at the same time, possibly offering a sweeping declaration about the legality of traffic cameras in Iowa.

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

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