Government

Iowa Supreme Court again sides with Cedar Rapids on speed cameras

Traffic flows under the automated traffic cameras on I-380 southbound near J Avenue NE in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Traffic flows under the automated traffic cameras on I-380 southbound near J Avenue NE in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

While many view Cedar Rapids’ automated traffic cameras as unforgiving “speed traps” that deprive citizens the chance to plead their case to a live ticket-writing officer, the program does not violate motorists’ due process rights, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The court applied a “shocks the conscience” test, exploring whether the program was so egregious it is unconstitutional. It is not, the court found — at least based on the evidence in the case of Myron Dennis Behm et al v. the City of Cedar Rapids and its traffic camera vendor, Gatso USA.

“This case involves traffic citations with small fines, not the pumping of a resisting person’s stomach,” according to the 95-page opinion written by Justice Brent R. Appel. “There is no outrageous utilization of physical force; state-sponsored imposition of uncalled-for embarrassment or ridicule; or intolerable, disreputable, and underhanded tactics that may arise from government action deliberately designed to penetrate attorney-client privilege.”

The court’s rejection of claims of violations of substantive due process, pre-emption, equal protection, infringing on motorists’ fundamental rights to travel and unjust enrichment were the latest blow to those seeking to shut down automated traffic cameras. Cedar Rapids and the traffic cameras have prevailed in virtually all challenges in a year’s long legal saga.

The justices had agreed to rehear the case upon request from Cedar Rapids, which pointed out that a key point in an earlier ruling was based on an ordinance not in place at the time Behm and the other plaintiffs got their tickets.

In its earlier ruling, the court ruled Cedar Rapids was sidestepping the state’s municipal infraction procedures by finding people who ignored traffic camera tickets guilty by default instead of filing charges against them in small claims court. The code section the court had a problem with was added to city code later.

Cedar Rapids has seven traffic camera locations. Three on in town streets that monitor speed and red light infractions remain on, although the westbound-facing speed cameras at First Avenue and 10th Street E remain off. The more prolific cameras at four locations on Interstate 380 have been off since April 2017 when a District Court judge ruled the Iowa Department of Transportation had authority over several cameras in Cedar Rapids and around the state. The Iowa Supreme Court reversed that ruling in April 2018.

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The cameras ticket drivers traveling 67 mph or greater in the 55 mph zone on the windy I-380 S-curve through downtown Cedar Rapids. Citations start at $75.

The Cedar Rapids Police Department had hoped to present a plan to the City Council to restart the I-380 cameras late last year — as well as create a municipal infraction process to address the court’s concerns — but the plan has been put on hold.

The cameras had been issuing 150,000 tickets a year and generated more than $3 million annually for Cedar Rapids and $2 million a year for Gatso USA. Without the cameras, crashes on the S-curve in Cedar Rapids are up 27 percent, although injury crashes are down 18 percent, data show.

The court held virtually the same findings as its earlier ruling.

The traffic cameras are no secret and invasion of privacy is limited, and law provides great leeway for enforcing public safety, the court ruled.

While evidence did not support unjust enrichment claims — that the cameras are simply designed to generate revenue for the city and Gatso — the court did not rule out such an argument being made in the future. The court deadlocked 3-3 on whether Cedar Rapids unlawfully delegated calibration of the cameras to a third party, so the court deferred to an earlier District Court ruling in favor of Cedar Rapids.

The court ruled against an argument that equal protection rights were being violated just because the cameras exempt semis and government vehicles and because out-of-state drivers can participate in an administrative appeal process by mail while in-state drivers must participate in person. The court also ruled the cameras did not infringe upon motorists’ fundamental rights to travel.

Officials for the parties were still reviewing the lengthy ruling Friday afternoon. It is not clear if there are any grounds for further appeal.

“The Cedar Rapids Police Department is working with the City Attorney’s Office as they review today’s decision by the Iowa Supreme Court,” Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said in a prepared statement. “The (automated traffic enforcement) program is an effective law enforcement tool that has proved to both reduce the number of crashes and the number of crashes involving serious injury or death.”

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

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