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Iowa Supreme Court upholds Sioux City traffic camera ordinance

Ruling focuses on whether vehicle operator, or owner, should be targeted in citations

A speed cameras on a road sign north of the H Avenue NE interchange on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010, in northeast Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A speed cameras on a road sign north of the H Avenue NE interchange on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010, in northeast Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

SIOUX CITY — The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday said local traffic camera ordinances in Iowa that hold the owner of a vehicle responsible for violations even if someone else is driving are not unconstitutional or in violation of law.

The ruling addresses a fundamental design of the traffic enforcement camera industry as well as a complaint voiced by some in every community with the cameras in place, including Cedar Rapids.

Mayor Ron Corbett on Friday said the Friday court ruling was good news for Cedar Rapids because it appears to “negate” a different lawsuit brought against Cedar Rapids and the city’s camera vendor that contends that the city’s camera setup violates the constitutional rights of motorists.

However, Jim Larew, the Iowa City attorney who has brought the class-action lawsuit, on Friday said the Iowa Supreme Court ruling involves some issues related to his case, but not other “substantially different” ones.

“We will continue to advocate our clients’ positions on those issues in state and federal courts,” Larew said.

Meanwhile, Cedar Rapids’ more immediate concern is a pending decision on traffic enforcement cameras from the Iowa Department of Transportation, which is deciding which cameras can remain in place across Iowa and which can’t. A couple of places where Cedar Rapids has some of its cameras are not in accord with new DOT rules on camera placement.

“We worked with the DOT to place those cameras back in 2010, and so we feel we’re on solid ground,” Corbett said.

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In Friday’s Iowa Supreme Court ruling, authored by Justice Brent Appel, the court affirmed an earlier ruling in Woodbury County where a magistrate and District Court judge found motorist Michael Jacobsma responsible for speeding in 2012 despite Jacobsma’s claim that the city of Sioux City couldn’t prove he was driving.

In Appel’s ruling, the Iowa justice cited federal court rulings in similar cases in Chicago and Washington, D.C., in which courts found that the cities classified vehicles caught by enforcement cameras as civil cases, not criminal cases, and as a result had a different burden of proof.

Jacobsma, a Sioux Center, Iowa, attorney, had argued that the burden of proof incorrectly had shifted to him to prove he was not driving, and instead should have remained with the city of Sioux City to prove that he actually was behind the wheel when a traffic camera caught his vehicle speeding in 2012.

Appel, though, cited the ruling in a Washington, D.C., case in which the court found that the motorist was not denied due process because there was a “rational connection” to presume that the owner of the vehicle caught on cameras was the violator.

“(I) t is entirely rational to presume that a vehicle is in the care, custody, or control of its registered owner,” the judge in the Washington, D.C., case said and Appel wrote in his ruling.

In the Chicago case, Appel’s ruling said the federal court similarly found the Chicago traffic cameras passed the “rational basis test.” The Chicago ruling goes on to suggest that the cameras make law-enforcement sense.

Appel quoted the Chicago ruling, which in part stated, “(A) system of photographic evidence reduces the costs of law enforcement and increases the proportion of all traffic offenses that are detected (and that) these benefits can be achieved only if the owner is held responsible.”

The court in the Chicago case, said Appel, “observed that vicarious liability is rational because it encourages owners to ‘take more care when lending their cars, and often they can pass the expense on to the real wrongdoer.’”

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Appel then states of the Chicago court ruling that “the take away point … is that even if an ordinance imposes liability on registered owners without an opportunity to show that someone else was driving the vehicle at the time of the infraction, such an ordinance would satisfy substantive due process under the United States Constitution.”

In an earlier case, Appel said the Iowa Supreme Court itself found that the owner of a vehicle ticketed for a parking violation in Iowa City is responsible to pay the ticket, and that the city doesn’t need to ticket the person, if other than the owner, who illegally parked it.

In that case, Appel said the Iowa Supreme found, in part, that “The inference created by (the ordinance) does not deny due process to the defendant by placing the burden upon him, but rather merely shifts to him the burden of going forward with evidence that the vehicle was not operated by one who the City has the right to presume was operating the automobile with its owner’s consent.”

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