Iowa Supreme Court preview: Final cases of the term set for oral argument April 10

By: Rox Laird on April 9th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court will hold its final round of oral arguments April 10 before the justices devote the remainder of the term cranking out opinions in previously submitted cases.

The justices will hear arguments in four cases, including one attorney-discipline case. Two cases will be submitted to the court without oral argument. Following are previews of three of the cases to be argued.

In the Matter of Property Seized From Jean Carlos Herrera and Fernando Rodriguez

Set for argument at 9 a.m. April 10

Jean Carlos Herrera and Fernando Rodriguez appeal the dismissal by the Pottawattamie County District Court of their claims regarding the State’s seizure of an automobile belonging to Rodriguez and contents of the automobile belonging to Herrera, including $44,900 in cash. The Supreme Court granted further review of a ruling by the Iowa Court of Appeals affirming the District Court in part and reversing in part.

The two claimants raise distinct issues in this consolidated appeal. Rodriguez argues he should be able to recover attorney fees since his vehicle was returned to him by the State. Herrera argues separately that he is in the position of waiving one constitutional right to assert another.

Herrera asserts that the search and seizure were illegal under the Fourth Amendment. But he cannot raise that issue without first establishing standing. To do that, he must testify to his ownership interest in the seized property, which he cannot do without running the risk that his testimony could be used against him in violation of his rights under the Fifth Amendment.

“This forces [Herrera] to make an unconstitutional choice between his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, and is untenable under both the Iowa and federal constitution,” his attorney, Dean Stowers, said in a brief submitted to the Court.

Herrera argues that the trial court should first address the legality of the search and seizure. If they weren’t valid, there is no need to force him to forfeit his Fifth Amendment rights by testifying about his ownership interest in the seized items.

Michelle R. Skadburg v. Gary Gately and Whitfield & Eddy

Set for argument at 9 a.m. April 10

Skadburg appeals a ruling from the Cerro Gordo County District Court dismissing her legal malpractice suit against Gary Gately and Whitfield & Eddy. The trial court ruled the suit was barred because it was filed after the five-year statute of limitations had expired. The Supreme Court granted the application for further review from the Iowa Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court.

The three-judge Court of Appeals panel split 2-1 in ruling there is a “genuine issue of material fact as to when Skadburg had knowledge of her cause of action” against Gately. Absent that knowledge, the statute of limitations would not have expired before she filed suit.

City of Des Moines, et al. v. Iowa Department of Transportation

Set for argument at 1:30 p.m. April 10

Des Moines, along with Muscatine and Cedar Rapids, appeal a decision by the Polk County District Court that the Iowa Department of Transportation has the power to regulate the manner in which cities enforce traffic laws – in this instance by ordering the cities to remove certain automated speed-enforcement cameras set up on primary highways within their boundaries.

The cities urge the court to reverse the trial court and declare that they have the power under the home-rule amendment to the Iowa Constitution to enforce traffic laws using automated cameras.

The DOT argues its automated-camera regulations on primary highways are justified in the interest of safety and uniformity, and that home-rule authority “must yield to legitimate DOT safety regulations of traffic cameras on primary highways.”

This is one of four cases before the Court this term regarding automated traffic-enforcement cameras. A second case, Reuven Weizberg, et al., appellees v. City of Des Moines, appellant, and Gatso USA, Inc., appellee, will be submitted to the Court on April 10 without oral argument. That class-action suit is a due-process challenge to the city’s method of prosecuting speeding violations using automated traffic cameras.

Two cases were submitted to the Court in September – City of Cedar Rapids v. Leaf, and Behm, et al. v. City of Cedar Rapids and Gatso USA. Among the issues raised in these two appeals: Did the city unconstitutionally delegate core police functions to a private contractor to install and operate the speed cameras?

 


A question in traffic-camera appeals: Do you have a constitutional right to break the speed limit in Iowa?

By: Rox Laird on September 25th, 2017

A legal dispute over a $75 traffic citation could have implications for thousands of drivers who receive speeding tickets in the mail based on evidence captured by an automated traffic-enforcement camera.

A number of lawsuits have been working their way through state and federal courts in Iowa over the legality of using automated cameras to enforce traffic laws. The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in two such cases:  City of Cedar Rapids v Leaf and Myron Behm, et al. v City of Cedar Rapids and Gatso USA Inc.

Marla Leaf asks the court to reverse a Linn County District Court ruling rejecting her appeal of a speeding ticket; and, in a companion case raising similar issues, Myron Behm and five other plaintiffs appeal a Linn County District Court’s dismissal on summary judgment of their civil suit against the City of Cedar Rapids. Both trial court decisions were upheld by the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the Iowa Supreme Court is now hearing appeals on further review.

In both appeals the Iowa Supreme Court is urged to declare Cedar Rapids’ process for enforcing traffic laws using automated cameras illegal under Iowa law and unconstitutional violations of due process and equal protection.

Leaf argues among other things that the city unlawfully delegated municipal police power to Gatso USA Inc., the company that installed and operates the cameras, which, she points out, is a for-profit corporation that has a contingency-fee interest in all fines collected.

“It is Gatso’s equipment that calculates speed, not the City or its police officers,” Leaf argues in a brief submitted to the court. “It is Gatso’s employees, and not the City’s Police Department, who calibrate the radar equipment. Gatso’s equipment, alone, determines who is eligible for prosecution, and who is not. It filters ‘events’ before sending any of them to the City for review by a police officer. After a brief review, if ‘approved’ by a Police Officer, Gatso creates Notice of Violation documents, under the City’s logo, and then mails them out to vehicle owners.”

The city rejects the argument that it illegally delegated its police powers, pointing out that all speeding citations are reviewed by a Cedar Rapids police officer before they are issued. And the city cites a 2002 Iowa Supreme Court ruling holding that while an Iowa municipality may not surrender legislative or government powers, it may delegate “acts and duties necessary to transact and carry out its powers.”

On the constitutional question, Leaf argues that the city’s traffic-camera enforcement violates the equal-protection clause. She says the city excludes from traffic-camera enforcement thousands of vehicles, including semi-trucks pulling trailers that do not have rear license plates, and government vehicles with license plates that do not show up in the state’s database.

That issue drew some of the most spirited questioning from the justices at Wednesday’s oral argument.

Justice David Wiggins repeatedly brought the questioning back to the equal-protection issue:  If the only drivers getting speeding tickets are “ordinary citizens,” rather than government vehicles and semi-trucks pulling trailers, he asked, how does that square with the equal-protection provision of the Iowa Constitution?

Patricia Kropf, representing the City of Cedar Rapids, said the ordinance did not set out to exclude certain drivers.

Wiggins questioned why that matters. “Similarly situated people have to be treated equally,” he said.  “How does this pass constitutional muster?”

Lawyers for the city argued that the ordinance doesn’t exclude certain vehicles; they are excluded only as it is applied because those vehicles aren’t in the license data base.

Wiggins was not persuaded: “As applied” is a problem, too, he noted.

Chief Justice Mark Cady asked what the city’s interest is in excluding government vehicles and semi-trucks pulling trailers.

Kropf responded by noting enforcement of speed limits in a cost-effective manner. The city also argued that photos of the front of vehicles raise privacy concerns by capturing the faces of the driver and other passengers in the vehicle, and by recording the date and time of day of the photo.

Justice Thomas Waterman got in a final zinger in a question to Iowa City lawyer James Larew, who argued the plaintiffs’ cases in both appeals: “Are you asking for a fundamental right to speed 12 miles over the speed limit?”

No, Larew responded, but the appellants are opposed to irrational enforcement of traffic laws.

[Go to Cases in the Pipeline at On Brief to read the briefs in the Cedar Rapids traffic cameras appeals.]


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