Government

Supreme Court reverses ruling in traffic camera case in favor of Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Muscatine

Court puts onus on Iowa Legislature to act

Chief Justice Mark S. Cady at the Iowa Supreme Court, considering several traffic camera cases Tuesday, April 10, 2018, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Pool photo by Rodney White/Des Moines Register)
Chief Justice Mark S. Cady at the Iowa Supreme Court, considering several traffic camera cases Tuesday, April 10, 2018, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Pool photo by Rodney White/Des Moines Register)
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The state transportation department lacks the authority to order cities of Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Muscatine to move, take down or disable automated traffic enforcement cameras or ATEs — essentially paving the way for their return — the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in a reversal from a lower court decision.

Iowa Code does not empower the Iowa Department of Transportation to create the rules which were the basis for the order, so the rules are “invalid and cannot be enforced against the cities,” the court stated in its 33-page opinion authored by Justice Edward M. Mansfield. All justices concurred except Daryl L. Hecht, who did not take part.

“As a result, the agency was without authority to rely on those rules to order the cities to move, remove or disable their ATE systems,” Mansfield wrote.

The case is remanded to Polk County District Court for a new ruling based on Friday’s opinion.

The cities of Cedar Rapids, Muscatine and Des Moines had sued the Iowa Department of Transportation in June 2015 to block a March 2015 order to turn off or move several ATEs around the state, including 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.

The lower court ruled in favor of the Iowa DOT on April 25, 2017, finding the Iowa Code gave the state agency wide authority of the state’s primary highways and interstates.

The ruling came unexpectedly quickly after oral arguments on April 10. Court watchers had been expecting a ruling by the end of term in late June.

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Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart expressed relief on Friday because the roads are safer with the cameras and because the city is unlikely to face the prospect of having to issue refunds, he said.

“Except for the one case that just got reversed, the city has pretty much won every case,” Hart said. “People really do understand this started out as a safety issue and not an income issue.”

Critics have long ridiculed the cameras as a money making scheme, while proponents say they make the roads safer.

Hart said he supports turning the cameras back on, however, city officials said no decision has been made yet as to when “the traffic cameras may be turned back on.” The speed cameras had not been issuing tickets since the lower court ruling last April.

“We believe that automated traffic enforcement is an effective law enforcement tool that has been proven to reduce serious injury and fatal crashes in our community,” Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said in a prepared statement. “Speeding — exceeding a speed limit or driving too fast for conditions — is one of the most common factors in motor vehicle crashes.”

He pointed to a National Transportation Safety Board statement calling ATEs an “effective countermeasure to reduce speeding-related crashes, fatalities, and injuries.”

The Iowa DOT released a statement saying the agency respects the court’s decision and will not be seeking a rehearing.

“This decision places in the hands of the legislature to decide how they want to proceed with automated traffic enforcement,” said Andrea Henry, Iowa DOT spokesperson. “Cities have the right to proceed with using the cameras moving forward, if they chose to.”

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Cities will no longer have to submit annual reports justifying the use of the cameras and reporting data about crashes and the number of tickets issues, but they will still need to get a permit if a camera is installed on a DOT bridge subject to the agency’s right of way procedures, she said.

The court also turned the attention to the Iowa Legislature.

In its ruling, the court wrote Iowa Code does not grant the Iowa DOT “unlimited power” and found the Iowa DOT’s interpretation of Iowa Code was too broad.

The code doesn’t grant authority specifically for regulating traffic enforcement cameras, whereas in other parts of the code, when it wants to, the legislature grants powers to a state agency for specific things, the court wrote. Also, other state legislature have specifically vested power in state agencies to govern traffic enforcement cameras.

“If the legislature wants to expand the Iowa DOT’s powers to include regulation of ATE systems, ‘it is, of course, free to do so,’” Mansfield wrote, in part citing from previous case law.

The Iowa Legislature has repeatedly punted rather than pass legislation addressing the cameras. As the legislative session winds down, competing bills — one to ban cameras and the other to regulate them — have again stalled.

State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said the ruling is not a surprise and it “strengthens the needs for the legislature to act this session before we adjourn.” Kaufmann said he believes the court decision could spur that to occur, despite the late hour.

“I absolutely think we have to do something,” Kaufmann said. “I obviously prefer a ban. The way Cedar Rapids has handled cameras on 380 shows they can’t be trusted to regulate themselves ... Cedar Rapids can’t be trusted to keep running wild.”

Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, and the Iowa House are championing a plan that regulates, rather than bans, the cameras.

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The Cedar Rapids cameras are the most prolific in the state, and Kaufmann and other opponents have criticized the city for its collection tactics, placement of the cameras close to speed limit changes, and have questioned their crash data.

The court has yet to rule on three other cases involving motorists contesting the legality of traffic cameras.

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

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