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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