Government

About 20,000 could get refunds from traffic-camera tickets in Cedar Rapids settlement

The deal, filed Monday, requires court approval to be final

Radar-enabled speed cameras are attached to a sign post as traffic moves along northbound Interstate 380 near the Diagon
Radar-enabled speed cameras are attached to a sign post as traffic moves along northbound Interstate 380 near the Diagonal Dr. SW exit on Friday, May 21, 2010, in Cedar Rapids. The cameras will record speeders and issue a ticket for the infraction. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Some 20,000 people cited for speeding or running red lights in Cedar Rapids would be eligible for refunds under a class-action lawsuit settlement filed Monday in Linn County District Court.

The settlement, which still must be reviewed by the court, would waive or refund $17 million the city of Cedar Rapids had been trying to collect from unpaid automated traffic camera tickets issued between March 2010 and Aug. 31, 2018.

This would amount to $2.9 million in refunds for fines and late fees paid through a December 2017 collection initiative, and waiving the remaining $14 million for 177,000 tickets that went unpaid.

“Quite literally hundreds of thousands of Iowans will benefit from this, if the court approves the settlement,” Simon Conway, a conservative radio show host and lead plaintiff, said Friday on WHO-AM 1040.

Conway, one of those who had received a ticket, declined further comment until after the settlement is official. It is unclear when the court may consider the deal.

Ten named plaintiffs sued the city and its collection agency, Municipal Collections of America, challenging the legality of requiring payment on some 221,000 old tickets — claiming it exceeded a one-year statute of limitations — and creating a 25 percent late fee for those who did not respond within 45 days of receiving the notice.

The city appears to yield on these two points by waiving the remaining uncollected debt and offering refunds to anyone who paid the late fee.

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For those who still did not pay in response to the 2017 collection notice, the city sent the debt to the Iowa Department of Administrative Services’ offset program, under which state income tax refunds were withheld to settle the debt.

The lawsuit challenged use of the offset program, but the settlement did not directly address this. Cedar Rapids officials say while they are not currently using the offset program, they reserve the right to do so in the future.

Cedar Rapids officials previously said they settled to save time and money and noted no party admitted wrongdoing. Furthermore, money to cover the refunds had been set aside from what was collected after the lawsuit was filed in 2018.

The city’s automated traffic camera program, which includes cameras in nine locations including four on Interstate 380, has survived multiple legal challenges and would be unaffected by the settlement.

“The cameras are still legal,” said Greg Buelow, a public safety spokesman for Cedar Rapids. “You have to hold people accountable for speeding or running red lights. That is criminal justice 101. If you want to change behavior, there has to be penalty and swift action or otherwise there is no incentive to follow through.”

The traffic camera program is on pace to issue 311,121 tickets this fiscal year based on the most recent monthly report, which would amount to more than $23.4 million in revenue if everyone paid — well above the city’s projection of $4.7 million.

Plaintiff attorneys would be receive up to 25 percent, or $733,007, of the refund amount. Fees for defense attorneys are not included in the proposed settlement.

Refunds not claimed would revert to the city, according to the proposed settlement.

Those who paid the debt directly — and not forcibly through the offset program — would not “receive any relief,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, James Larew, said on the WHO radio program.

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“We are hopeful the court will approve the proposed settlement agreement that has been agreed to by all parties,” he told The Gazette. “We think it is in the interest of vehicle owners and the defendants.”

The number of class members appears to be a moving target.

The settlement document identifies 20,090 class members, but the city contends the number has been revised down to 18,625 and continues to be subject to revisions.

Class members would be eligible for up to a $599 refund minus 25 percent for attorney fees. People who received a single $75 ticket — the most common fine — plus the 25 percent late fine would get a refund of about $70. Some class members had multiple tickets.

The exact amount of refunds is not spelled out in the settlement.

Those eligible for refunds would be contacted by a vendor, First Class Inc., hired by the city.

The timing of notification of class members remains up in the air pending court approval of the settlement, a fairness hearing and potential appeals. After being contacted, class members would need to make a claim to receive money, and checks would be issued within 10 days of a final judgment.

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

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