CEDAR RAPIDS — The Iowa Supreme Court rejected several — but not all — challenges to automated traffic camera programs in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines on Friday, breathing new life into the legal battle while also criticizing Cedar Rapids’ claims that the cameras are about safety, not money.
The court released opinions on three separate cases related to traffic cameras Friday.
In the case of City of Cedar Rapids v. Leaf, the court unanimously — with Justice Daryl Hecht taking no part — upheld lower court rulings finding Marla Leaf, who received a $75 speeding ticket on Interstate 380, did not have her due process rights violated by third-party Gatso USA operating Cedar Rapids’ traffic camera programs or using volunteers with close ties to the police department to rule in administrative hearings.
In Behm et al v. City of Cedar Rapids and Gatso USA, a traffic camera vendor that works with Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, a split court rejected Behm’s constitutional arguments over due process and equal protection but ruled in favor on a key point, reversing a lower court’s dismissal of the case.
The justices found the city was sidestepping municipal infraction procedures, noting the ordinance is “irreconcilable” with state code.
Under the city ordinance, ticket recipients who don’t respond to notices are by default in violation of a municipal infraction, but the city never begins municipal infraction proceedings, the court said Friday.
“We conclude the provisions of the ordinance that purportedly impose liability on a protesting vehicle owner who does not respond to a notice of violation or who does not timely file a request with the city to institute a municipal infraction proceeding ... are irreconcilable with the provisions of Iowa Code section 364.22,” the court wrote in its ruling.
Jim Larew, an Iowa City attorney involved in all three cases, said he is pleased with the Behm ruling.
“The plaintiffs are gratified that the Supreme Court has recognized that some of their most fundamental rights have been violated,” Larew said. “In particular, they strongly agree with the Iowa Supreme Court majority decision that if the city wishes to enforce a liability under its ordinance on a vehicle owner, it must institute a municipal infraction proceeding. We think all citizens should have all of their rights fully protected.”
The city of Cedar Rapids still is reviewing the rulings and will provide timely notice before any operation of traffic cameras resume on I-380, a city spokesperson said.
In Weizberg et al v. the City of Des Moines and Gatso USA, the court reversed a lower-court ruling favoring Weizberg that found the city violated his due process rights using an administrative appeal process not established in city code. In its reversal, the high court noted plaintiffs are “afforded a full panoply of procedural rights.”
The court also reversed the district court’s decision to grant a dismissal of Weizberg’s claims of violation of equal protection, substantive due process, and privileges and immunities, noting that at the pleading stage the facts hadn’t been presented to support the claims.
Behm lost on similar claims, but this occurred in summary judgment, the court noted.
The justices also criticized the Cedar Rapids traffic camera program, questioning assertions that the cameras are about safety instead of money, but the court noted its criticisms do not undercut the legality of camera programs.
“One might also wonder why the city maintains a system generating 35,000 tickets per year at the end of the hazardous ‘S’ curve when, according to (the Iowa Department of Transportation), most of the danger has passed,” the court wrote in the Behm ruling. “This suggests that the placement of the (automated traffic enforcement) equipment is concerned with the generation of money rather than safety. And, the notice of violation seems primarily designed to getting money quickly from cited owners by not candidly advising the owners of their right to a district court proceeding and by threatening them with the prospect of adverse impact on their credit rating.”
The three traffic camera cases explored different legal arguments than the case of Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Muscatine v. the Iowa Department of Transportation. The Iowa Supreme Court in April ruled the Iowa DOT lacked authority to order cities to turn off or move several of the cameras, reversing a district-court ruling from May 2017 and opening the door for cities to operate camera programs under their own rules.
Cedar Rapids has not issued tickets on I-380 — where four traffic cameras are located — since May 2017. The cameras generated about $3 million annually for the city, and city officials said earlier this year they are waiting to resume the program after further analysis. Des Moines began issuing tickets again on I-235 in late June.