Cedar Rapids seizing income tax returns for nonpayment of traffic camera tickets

Photo by Kurt Zenisek

Cedar Rapids has begun seizing the state tax refunds of people with unpaid tickets from the city’s traffic cameras. In September, the city council voted to send the names and Social Security numbers of people with unpaid traffic camera fines to the Iowa Department of Administrative Service’s offset program.

The offset program is used to collect debts owed to state and local government agencies. It seizes all state payments to an individual — including state tax refunds, lottery winnings and vendor payments — until the debt that was reported has been paid.

Then-mayor Ron Corbett cast the only vote against the city council’s proposal to use the offset program, calling the move “heavy handed.”

No city in Iowa has made more money from traffic cameras than Cedar Rapids. Since Cedar Rapids began using automated traffic cameras in 2010, fines from the cameras have generated $3 million a year for the city’s general fund.

That amount doesn’t represent all the money paid in fines. The cameras were installed and are operated Massachusetts-based Gatso USA, which currently receives 40 percent of fines, as well as other fees. In 2016, Gatso USA earned $2.3 million from the Cedar Rapids cameras.

The city has also handed over its involvement in the offset program to a private contractor, Municipal Collections of America (MCOA). The Illinois-based company receives a fee, the cost of which is tacked onto each ticket it sends to offset program. That fee is equal to 25 percent of the fine.

According to The Gazette, 70,809 individuals with unpaid traffic camera fines have been turned over to the offset program. The city said some of the tickets have gone unpaid since 2010, and the total amount owed is $17 million.

The Gazette found that some people who had received notice that their state income tax return was seized by the offset program claimed they had not received a ticket and could not get more information about the traffic violation they allegedly committed from the city or its contractors.

In 2015, the Iowa Department of Transportation ordered automated traffic cameras located on Iowa interstates shut down, after studying the use of the cameras and concluding the potential problems caused by using speed cameras on interstates outweighed the potential benefits. The agency also concluded that camera placement was often based on maximizing revenue from speeding tickets for cities rather than safety needs.

Since 2010, Cedar Rapids has issued more than 500,000 tickets from automated traffics — a record for any Iowa city — and more than 90 percent of those tickets were generated by the speed cameras located at the winding “S-curve” on I-380.

Cedar Rapids, along with Des Moines and Muscatine, is currently appealing IDOT’s order to shut off the interstate cameras.

The city is also facing three lawsuits over the cameras.

In January, Iowa City attorney James Larew filed a lawsuit on behalf of several motorists seeking to have the city cancel its collection actions over unpaid traffic camera fines. The lawsuit argues that some of the collection actions violate state law, because municipalities are required to begin collection actions within one year of a fine being levied. It also argues that the city cannot impose the 25 percent fee to pay MCOA, if the fee was not in place at the time the violation occurred. More broadly, the lawsuit argues that the process by which motorists can appeal a traffic camera ticket violates the guarantee of due process in the Iowa constitution.

The argument that Cedar Rapids’ use of traffic cameras violates the right to due process is also at the heart of the two lawsuits — Behm v. Cedar Rapids and Cedar Rapids v. Leaf — currently under consideration by Iowa Supreme Court. Larew represents the people suing the city in both cases.

In states where courts have ruled against the use of automated traffic cameras to generate tickets, municipalities have been required to issue refunds. A 2015 ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court required the city of St. Louis to offer $5.6 million in refunds to people who had received tickets from that city’s red-light cameras.

In his filings with the supreme court, Larew argues his clients should be able to sue for damages, if the court finds Cedar Rapids has violated their rights.

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