Iowa Supreme Court considers Cedar Rapids woman's $75 traffic camera ticket

Case exposes 'complicated and potentially significant legal arguments'

Traffic approaches the speed enforcement traffic cameras on I-380 Northbound near the J Avenue exit in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, August 25, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A Cedar Rapids woman was zipping down Interstate 380 in her Ford Mustang, clocked at 68 mph in a 55 zone, one day in February 2015.

It was all caught on a traffic camera, and Marla Leaf, 65, soon found a $75 ticket in her mailbox. Except, Leaf was driving cautiously because earlier that day an icy and “very slick” I-380 had caused accidents and it was still icy on her return, she testified.

“She recalls that, as she approached the J Avenue exit, she was traveling between 50 and 55 mph,” Leaf testified, according to a proof brief submitted this week.

Her defense was rejected in small claims court and on appeal to Linn County District Court, but Leaf and her $75 ticket now has the attention of the Iowa Supreme Court. It’s highly unusual for a small claims case to reach the Iowa Supreme Court, which highlights the complicated and potentially significant issues with traffic camera programs, court watchers say.

It’s one of several cases around the state and nation testing laws surrounding how traffic cameras are regulated and administered as critics and supporters clash over whether they improve safety or just generate money.

“There’s obviously something in there that would interest them,” said Robert Rigg, a Drake University professor and Criminal Defense Program Director. “The Iowa Supreme Court has their own way of looking at issues. It could be a procedural problem they are interested it, it could be substantive, or it may be something specific about this case.”

Leaf challenged her due process, the calibration of the cameras, and that the burden of proof hadn’t been met. Because her case is not guaranteed an appeal, she had to request permission to appeal through an application for discretionary review from the Iowa Supreme Court, which the court granted earlier this week.

The city of Cedar Rapids, which is the other party in the case, resisted the review saying the lower court considered and ruled against Leaf’s arguments and her filing includes information not previously presented. An official with Cedar Rapids declined to comment due to pending litigation.

The Leaf case raises “fundamental questions” about a city’s use of the cameras on federal roads despite objections of the state, the delegation of police functions to a private for-profit corporation, and the administrative appeal process, according to the filing.

“Ms. Leaf’s case, standing alone, may seem insignificant to some: it constitutes one $75 penalty that she believes should not have been imposed, with court costs now to $195,” Leaf’s filing states. “But, the injustice experienced by her is not trivial, when viewed in a larger context.”

Cameras at northbound and southbound I-380 near J Avenue issue more than 90,000 tickets each making them the most aggressive traffic cameras in the state. It’s worth millions of dollars split between Cedar Rapids and its camera vendor, GATSO USA.

The Iowa Department of Transportation ruled in 2014 the southbound cameras at J Avenue are out of compliance with a state law requiring 1,000 feet separation from a speed limit change, and last year ordered the southbound cameras moved and the northbound cameras taken down. The same ruling ordered two other I-380 cameras moved or taken down and the speed detection at First Avenue SE and 10th Street SE turned off. Two others can remain as is, the Iowa DOT said.

Cedar Rapids, Muscatine and Des Moines sued the Iowa DOT, which overall ordered 10 of 31 camera locations in the state moved or turned off, claiming local officials should decide on enforcement practices. That case is pending, and the Cedar Rapids cameras continue operating.

Ryan Koopmans, an attorney with Nyemaster Goode PC of Des Moines and a court watcher who contributes to the appellate blog, On Brief, said Leaf’s case has “complicated and potentially significant legal arguments” that could have a broad impact on how camera programs operate in Iowa.

“The ruling could affect everyone who drives through Cedar Rapids,” Koopmans said. “And that’s the type of cases that the Iowa Supreme Court generally takes: cases in which the legal issues have broad public importance.”

The Iowa Supreme Court granted less than one third — 20 of 63 — discretionary review applications filed in 2015, and just two were small claims cases, said Steve Davis, an Iowa judicial branch spokesman. The Court of Appeals ruled in one case and the other is just beginning, he said.

At the appellate level, the court doesn’t retry the case or consider new information, but rather examines previous evidence and arguments to see if a legal error occurred, Davis said. The court could uphold the earlier ruling, reverse it or remand it to a lower court for further findings. Leaf’s case could be transferred to the Court of Appeal, but Koopmans and Rigg said given discretionary review was granted, the high court will likely keep it. A decision could come later this year or in 2017, Koopmans said.

Koopmans cautioned the Supreme Court’s interest does not signal justices are leaning a certain way.

Courts around the country have been weighing in on the legality of traffic camera programs, which are used by 140 cities around the country, including six in Iowa, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Missouri Supreme Court struck down St. Louis’ red light camera program, while high courts in Ohio and California recently backed camera programs.

The Iowa Supreme Court has weighed in at least twice on traffic camera cases. Last year, the high court ruled a Sioux City traffic camera ordinances doesn’t violate state law by holding the owner of a vehicle responsible for violations even if someone else is driving. In a 2008 split-decision, the high court ruled a Davenport traffic camera ordinance didn’t violate state law just because state law doesn’t expressly allow or ban traffic cameras.

Attorney James Larew, who is representing Leaf, has also challenged the constitutionality of camera programs based on state and federal law through class-action lawsuits against Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and GATSO USA. Those cases are also pending.