Cedar Rapids’ controversial highway speed cameras are legal, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled once again last week. That doesn’t mean the city should immediately resume issuing tickets from the devices.
The city has prevailed several times in a series of legal challenges to its automated traffic enforcement program in recent years. In the latest case, Myron Behm et al v. the City of Cedar Rapids, justices found the system does not violate Iowans’ due process rights.
However, the court had previously ruled Cedar Rapids was sidestepping Iowa laws governing municipal infraction proceedings, because people who ignored citations were found guilty by default, with no clear opportunity to appeal. The city can update its ordinance to provide proper municipal infraction procedures, but several questions about how that will work remain unanswered.
Even under a new process, the city still may not be able to collect fines from thousands of people who were cited under rules the court struck down, according to Jim Larew, the Iowa City lawyer leading the challenges against speed cameras. And the expenses of properly vetting future appeals may prove unpalatable for local stakeholders.
“Citizens will determine whether we should invest in these types of resources on a system that has questionable safety benefits,” Larew wrote in an email to a Gazette reporter last month.
Local leaders should not rush to reactivate the camera program, even if they have the authority to do so. Litigants and other community members have brought forth legitimate concerns, and the city owes them thoughtful consideration.
The cameras on Interstate 380 have not been issuing tickets since April 2017. In that time, the number of crashes on the highway have increased, though the number of incidents causing injury has decreased.
The city has also missed out on some $3 million in annual ticket revenue with the cameras not functioning. A third-party vendor managing the system, Gatso USA, was raking in $2 million annually from the cameras.
In the last full year of cameras issuing tickets, about 69,000 were ignored and went unpaid, The Gazette has reported. Between 2010 and 2014, nearly 10,000 tickets were appealed, and more than half of those were dismissed.
Since the city’s administrative appeal process has been deemed unworkable, unpaid tickets moving forward likely would have to be turned over to small claims court. Thousands of additional cases could overwhelm the district court system. With the court budget set at the state level, it’s worth exploring whether the city could dedicate some of its ticket revenue to offset the cost of court appeals.
Late last year, Cedar Rapids Police Chief called for restarting camera operations, citing public safety concerns and asking to direct the revenue to hiring new police officers. New rules governing the camera program and clarify the appeal process have not yet been considered by the City Council.
Disgruntled motorists and critics of automated law enforcement have long complained the city’s camera program is a scheme to extract municipal revenue for drivers. The city now has an opportunity to show their intent has been traffic safety all along, and not to pad the city budget.
If the goal of the cameras is to reduce highway driving speeds and prevent collisions, it would be disingenuous for the city to budget ticket revenue for any ongoing expenses, like police officers’ salaries and benefits, as proposed by the police chief.
The cameras must not be used until the city can make it abundantly clear to citizens how they can challenge infractions they believe were wrongly issued. City leaders also should offer their best estimates of how many tickets the cameras will issue, how many appeals they expect and what burden that will impose on the court system.
The city should follow the same advice it gives to interstate drivers — slow down.
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