2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

Lawyer: State of Iowa 'abusive' over traffic camera fines

Cedar Rapids among cities that have state seize assets

Traffic flows Nov. 20, 2018, under the automated traffic cameras on Interstate 380 southbound near J Avenue NE in Cedar Rapids. The interstate speed cameras have not been issuing tickets since early 2017, but the city has said it plans to start using them again sometime this year after providing the public with notice. (The Gazette)
Traffic flows Nov. 20, 2018, under the automated traffic cameras on Interstate 380 southbound near J Avenue NE in Cedar Rapids. The interstate speed cameras have not been issuing tickets since early 2017, but the city has said it plans to start using them again sometime this year after providing the public with notice. (The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The attorney behind several mostly unsuccessful lawsuits challenging the legality of automated traffic cameras in Iowa has filed a petition with the state on behalf of eight motorists seeking to block the seizure of income tax refunds to cover debt from unpaid speed and red light traffic camera tickets.

Lawyer Jim Larew, of Iowa City, filed the petition April 4 questioning whether the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, which oversees the state’s income offset program, has the legal authority to collect the money; whether it wrongfully expanded its powers to include collection and forfeiture; and whether it wrongfully enriched itself.

The petition comes after the Iowa Supreme Court declared the city of Cedar Rapids was finding people who did not pay the automated camera tickets guilty by default — rather than taking them to court through a municipal infraction process, which state law requires.

Several cities including Cedar Rapids contract with Administrative Services to seize income tax refunds and other money from people with unpaid camera fines to settle the debt. In many cases, the refund being held is significantly greater than the fine.

The agency keeps a 6 percent fee for its role.

"Petitioners believe that is an abusive use of governmental power to seize tax refunds to satisfy alleged debts owed to cities that, in fact, have never been adjudicated as liabilities by the Iowa District Court,” Larew said in an email. “Local and state governments should be protecting citizens against predatory practices aimed at taxpayers — not joining in such practices.”

Administrative Services not return messages seeking comment.

Many of the unpaid tickets from Cedar Rapids were turned over to the department after unsuccessful attempts to gain payment through a collection agency, part of an initiative that began in December 2017.

The City Council approved the process, but officials said they discontinued it Sept. 4 after the state Supreme Court ruling. The City Council, however, has not voted to change its policy.

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Cedar Rapids has generated $3.1 million from 35,000 fines collected from the offset program. About 177,000 unpaid tickets worth $14 million remain under the Cedar Rapids program.

The plaintiffs in the petition also are involved in a lawsuit challenging debt collection practices related to traffic cameras in Cedar Rapids.

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

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